The final session of the 28th IIC biennial Congress tooks us across three time zones. Though geographically dispersed, it was perfectly summed up by one of the speakers that the presentations showcased “diverse but connected experiences.”
Melissa Marshall’s talk was deeply moving and brought the human to the fore of conservation planning. From the start, Melissa acknowledged the traditional owners of Australia, and it was this approach which guided her research of a decolonising framework in managing Rock Art sites. In contrast to traditional conservation management practice, was the direct participation of and oversight from indigenous people and community groups in shaping their cultural preservation. Robin Dann and his fellow Indigenous Rangers were trained to carry out documentation and surveys, mapping Rock Art sites across Australia. They have merged technology for documentation with cultural protocols when visiting sites and caring respectfully for the imagery.
She placed in the nucleus of her framework, Indigenous traditional knowledge – shifting non-indigenous authority back to the traditional owners. Empowering communities through knowledge sharing and education, enabling and returning the sense of ownership for continued care of their sacred sites while specialist support took a secondary position.
Once again, we are reminded through this talk of how culture and people should form the basis of conservation management practices and how collaborative efforts can be mutually beneficial.
The theme of community and collaboration continued westward to the banks of the Nile River.
Pamela Hatchfield presented her work with two painted royal tombs in El-Kurru Sudan focusing on the community collaboration during treatment and efforts to improve site conditions and access as the site grows into a bustling tourist destination. Pamela highlighted how the combination of international institutional involvement as well as local community consultation and collaboration has facilitated a new attitude towards the sophistication and significance of Nubian society, which throughout history was subject to Egyptian, American and European cultural biases. The paper perfectly accentuated the importance of community involvement and local stewardship for continued management of the tombs, and Pamela’s anecdotal story-telling of the project gave us insight into the expertise and ingenuity of the neighbouring village. She discussed the importance of letting the original work dictate the choice of materials, and selecting local and sustainable options wherever possible, such as gum Arabic as paint binder from the region’s acacia trees.
What particularly stood out in the paper, and what was key to all three presentations, was the linkage and balance between the scientific analysis and technical approaches of conservators and the engagement, collaboration and consultation with a wide variety of community members and stakeholders.
Our final stop brought us just outside of Edinburgh to Newhailes Estate. A presentation illustrating a discussion between stakeholders, presented in a light-hearted way but with a serious point.
Conservators often assume that there is a tension between promoting use and maintaining a historic site. Jane Henderson, David Hopes, and Robert Walker challenge this assumption by presenting an alternative conservation decision-making model. Their model acknowledges three common psychological biases: Endowment, loss aversion, and zero-risk bias. This approach prompts people to consider both the risks and benefits of implementing change and maintaining the status quo.
The speakers applied their model to the case study of hosting a Christmas Fayre at Dalrymple Hall. From a conventional conservator’s standpoint, having the event risks the integrity of the site. However, the speakers argued that not having the event will risk the loss of economic and identity building benefits. By evaluating both, having and not having an event, on an equal basis, the case against use no longer stands as a risk-free option, thus opening the discussion for other options.
Reflections on the Q&A
The live Q&A focused on the implementation of and response to the collaborative strategies presented. All authors emphasized prioritizing the communities’ needs as well as strengthening relationships through building mutual understanding. When addressing the topic of working with communities, Melissa Marshall challenged conservators to consider that they might be the ones to change, rather than expecting the community to adopt conservation frameworks. She said, “Are we the ones, as conservators, who don’t have to change? It’s their site, it’s their country. It’s our privilege to work alongside our colleagues.”
While technology can be used to preserve and extend access to sites, the panellists also discussed the associated limitations. Notably, Melissa highlighted the need for cultural sensitivity (e.g., caretakers of sacred places might not want their sites to be photographed). Pamela explained that certain site conditions might prohibit the use of more sensitive technology-enabled data collection methods.
We have come full circle in congress, beginning and ending in Edinburgh. One permeating theme is the coming together of people bringing expertise, ideas and cultural knowledge. This session has demonstrated the value of collaborative working. We hope that the approach of being receptive and listening to those outside the conservation community continue to play an increasing role in the future of conservation decision making.
Authors and Bylines:
Riza Hussaini is a Conservator and postgraduate conservation student currently in the UK.
Annabelle Williams is a student conservator from Melbourne, Australia.
Caitlyn Fong is a pre-program conservation student currently based in California, USA.