By Isobel Griffin
Organising a big conference is always challenging, as anyone who has attempted it will report. However, put this challenge into the context of a global pandemic and it takes on a whole new dimension! Fortunately, I had no idea of what lay ahead when I was asked to become involved with planning the 2020 IIC Congress, due to issues with the original proposal. Edinburgh was one of the alternative locations suggested, and I was asked to investigate its suitability. Time was of the essence, so as the Scots would say, I tried not to delay in ‘getting oan wae it’.
I began by looking at potential venues. Edinburgh is not a huge city, so it emerged that there were only a handful of options with capacity for 500 delegates. The modern conference centres on offer felt too bland for a conference about buildings conservation, but when I came across McEwan Hall, the building used by the University of Edinburgh for formal ceremonies such as graduations, I knew it was right for IIC. Described by Edinburgh First’s website as “an iconic Grade A listed building... designed by Sir Rowand Anderson, with lavish interiors by William Palin” it was an added bonus that the Hall had recently undergone an extensive refurbishment project, which would doubtless be of great interest to the IIC delegates.
With a potential venue lined up, my next task was to round up a local organising committee. As the lead public body responsible for looking after Scotland’s historic environment, the involvement of Historic Environment Scotland (HES) was crucial, and I had a very positive conversation with David Mitchell, director of conservation at HES. He indicated that HES would be willing to support the congress—in fact they went on to become a key sponsor—and that he and a colleague, Thomas Knowles, would join the local organising committee. Further indications of support were received from the National Trust for Scotland, National Museums Scotland, the City of Edinburgh Council and the University of Edinburgh, and I was able to put together a proposal for the IIC Council meeting in May 2019.
It was a big decision for IIC Council. On the one hand, the congress is a core activity for IIC, which generates a huge range of benefits for the organisation. On the other hand, the planning timetable would be significantly more compressed than usual, and that would intensify the risks that are always associated with delivering a successful congress. Fortunately, Council was impressed by the team spirit that was already evident within the local organising committee, and we were given the green light to proceed.
At the first official committee meeting, the list of items to consider seemed endless: the logistics of the venue; the technical programme, with additional workshops and meetings thrown in; the social programme of tours and evening events; the recruiting of sponsors and exhibitors; the involvement of local dignitaries; the various grants and awards associated with the congress; and the all-important budget. Luckily for us, help was available in the form of ‘the two Sarahs’: Sarah Stannage, executive director of IIC and expert on conference logistics following the successful IIC Congress in Turin in 2018, and Sarah Staniforth, president emeritus of IIC, who has been involved in IIC congresses during a career spanning several decades, and knows exactly what works and what doesn’t.
The members of the local organising committee were also relieved to hear that they were not responsible for everything. The technical committee would select and edit the papers and posters, with a sub-committee covering the student poster competition, the grants and awards committee would deal with the grants programme, the communications committee would lead on advertising and social media and the finance committee would scrutinise the congress finances.
And so the congress planning progressed… Over the next few months the call for papers closed, with ample submissions to allow for a high quality publication and programme; the Forbes prize was awarded and several Scottish speakers were invited to give presentations, thus confirming the programme for the first day of the congress; venues and caterers were identified for the opening and closing ceremonies and congress dinner; sponsorship for various elements of the congress was secured from Historic Environment Scotland, the Getty Conservation Institute, Conservation by Design and True Vue; and all of the exhibitors’ slots were booked. The local organising committee was swelled by representatives from Heriot-Watt University and Museums Galleries Scotland, and it put together a programme of over thirty tours and visits to museums and heritage sites in Edinburgh and beyond.
And then the world was hit by the coronavirus pandemic, and the future of the congress was thrown up in the air. The situation changed daily, and it was difficult to predict what would be permitted next week, let alone in November. Fortunately, we were able to buy some time by securing extensions to the dates when non-refundable deposits would be required for some of our key bookings. We began to think about what a virtual conference could look like and had helpful discussions with other organisations in similar positions, particularly the Museums Association, whose conference was scheduled to be held in Edinburgh a few days after ours.
After much deliberation, the decision to switch to a 100% virtual model was made at the IIC Council meeting at the end of the May 2020. A media provider was appointed to create the digital platform and collate and organise the content, and a programme committee was formed to decide how the various components of the congress would be run. It was considered important to retain the Scottish connection to the conference, and the local organising committee was tasked with creating Scottish content, including a programme of virtual tours.
At the time of writing in early July, I can report that everything seems to be on track for a successful virtual congress. The programme is shaping up well, and the conference website has been updated to explain the new offerings, with the bonus that IIC has been able to offer free registration for IIC members and free or subsidised registration for various other categories of delegate, which could make this our best attended congress ever! For the local organising committee and its chair, the congress has taken a turn that we could never have predicted, but we are enjoying learning new skills, and are determined to ‘och wheesht and get oan wae it’ (keep calm and carry on)!
Isobel Griffin trained as a wall painting conservator at the Courtauld Institute of Art and subsequently undertook a PhD in heritage science. She has spent most of her career as a preventive conservator and conservation manager, and she has been the head of conservation at National Galleries Scotland since 2019.
(Read the whole article and more in the August-September 2020 "News in Conservation" Issue 79, p. 22-24)