Forbes Prize Lecture

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The first day of Congress included a moving reflection on the history and future of conservation science through Dr. Norman Tennent’s Forbes Prize Lecture. The Forbes Prize Lecture has been delivered at each IIC Congress since the Rome Congress in 1961. Lecturers for this distinguished event are selected based on their important contributions to the field of conservation. Throughout his career, Dr. Norman Tennent has made a number of important marks on the field, including his research on historic materials for glass repair, as well as innovative product development for use in conservation (most notably, the non-yellowing epoxy resin Fynebond®). As a conservation scientist with experience working in museums, laboratories, and universities, Dr. Tennent is well positioned to reflect on the trajectory of conservation science thus far and highlight the remarkable progress which has been made.

Dr. Tennent’s talk exuded a balance of splendour, drama, and insight - delivered from the interior of Brodick Castle on the Isle of Arran in Western Scotland. He focused on five personalities whose research has made lasting impressions on the conservation science field. These five figures represent ninety years of conservation research and, by reflecting on these individual careers, Dr. Tennent notes seven key themes of conservation science. The themes include: the importance of serendipity, development of personal specialisms, maintenance of institutional memory, hypothesis-driven research, the development component of R&D, experimental results for environment-material interactions, and progress in analytical instrumentation and data processing. 

The five personalities Dr. Tennent introduced include Robert Brill, Patrick Ritchie, Robert Feller, Rene Van Tassel, and Robert Organ. He asserts that though we may or may not know all of these men by name, we are almost certainly familiar with their contributions to the field. He offers brief overviews of each researcher’s career and accomplishments, tying each example back to his previously discussed themes. A recurring notion is the importance of preserving institutional or research knowledge, through documentation or physical samples, so that topics may be revisited as technology and instrumentation advances. A striking example is offered, where in Patrick Ritchie’s Egyptian glass collection (originally compiled in the 1930’s) had been re-analysed in the 1990’s and subsequently in more recent years using techniques that would not have been available to Ritchie at the time. The samples serve as a resource which can continue to be mined for information, as our ability to analyse these materials improve. 

The efficiently organized and engaging lecture was well received and reiterated the importance and value of staying connected to our roots. Advancement in terms of research and technology is vital to the field of conservation, but so is reflection and reassessment of history and learning from the past. This sparked discussion in the chat highlighting a similar resource - the FAIC Oral History Project - which contains over 450 transcripts of interviews with eminent conservation professionals who have since passed. These interviews, in addition to publications and records help to ensure transfer of knowledge between past and future generations of conservation professionals.

Author Byline:

Anaka Asokan is a recent graduate of the MPhil Textile Conservation (2020) program from the Centre for Textile Conservation and Technical Art History at the University of Glasgow.

Kasey Hamilton is a recent graduate of the UCLA/Getty Interdepartmental Program (2020) in the Conservation of Archaeological and Ethnographic Materials.