Autoethnography as a new approach in conservation

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Autoethnography as a New Approach in Conservation is the name of the paper that introduces a very interesting methodological tool for documentation and treatments evaluation that I certainly wanted to assay as soon as I got home. So, when I came to know the lecture arguments and reflected on how my own education, nationality, age and many other aspects of my personal history actually affected how I perceived everything (including my conservation work), I thought it would be a good idea to share my retrospective reflection about my experience of being present at the IIC event, particularly with the aim of writing a post about this presentation as a blogger volunteer. In this way, the following lines are my own autoethnography exercise inspired in the work of Sanneke Stigter.

I have been waiting for this session since I saw the tentative papers program of the IIC Congress because methodological approaches for decision-making in conservation is a topic that definitely draws my attention (and actually, that’s why I chose being a volunteer to write about this particular paper). It is Friday morning and this lecture is the first of today’s schedule, so I hurry up to come to the hall to get a good seat. As I have to take some photographs for the blog and I occasionally struggle understanding everything the speaker says (because I’m not a native speaker), I conveniently choose a seat in the second row; just in front of the podium and screen so that I (hopefully) won’t miss anything. Once settled, a very kind colleague –whom I haven’t met yet– greets me and asks for my name. I answer her back and also ask her name. When she says she is Dinah Eastop I can’t hide my happiness and surprise! I am amazed because I have followed her work since I was studying textile conservation, and specially because I am doing -in this very moment- a research on textiles conservation. A bunch of questions come to my mind because I really want to get some feedback on my research, but I have to choose just one or two as the lecture is about to start. Fortunately, Dinah is a really engaging person and we reserved the chat for the next coffee break.

Jerry Podany, the chairman of this session, introduces Sanneke Stigter and the presentation begins. As I listen the lecture, I realize that autoethnography is certainly a new approach in conservation that I haven’t heard before; neither in my country nor in the international conservation literature. I am especially interested in her example of retrospective reflection as I am totally identified with her experience of removing a flyspeck over a painting for the very first time. The following is an extract of her account:

“I wrap only a few cotton wool fibres around it, rolling them between my fingers. This will allow me to use the minimum amount of moisture necessary to engage with the debris in order to lift it and minimize the chance of damage to the possibly water sensitive paint layer. I take a new scalpel blade from its package, slide it onto the scalpel holder and place it on my trolley cart together with the other instruments, waiting to be used”.

This simple example shows that, aside from being a captivating narration of an everyday practice in our professional field, the conservation treatment is made of small-scale decisions that lead you to the desired result. It is also revealling that, no matter where is the conservator from or where he/she studied, we all face kind of the same situations, doubts and determinations. So, my thoughts in this moment are about the possibilities of using this approach not only for the conservation of contemporary art itself, but for any other activity associated to the conservation of any kind of cultural heritage that pass through my hands. This is something that I definitely want to explore more whenever I have the opportunity.

That's how, after writing this brief testimony of my personal experience attending this particular lecture at the IIC Congress, I recognized that this exercise certainly encourages critical thinking about being conscious of our own role on the way we react in the everyday life. So, if you work in the conservation field and you are reading this, what would be your retrospective reflection about your experience?
Emmanuel Lara is a full-time conservator from Mexico City. At this moment he is working at the Research Deputy Office in the National Coordination for the Conservation of Cultural Heritage (former Centro Churubusco) and he is always eager to learn and share new perspectives for the conservation of cultural heritage.