IIC Wellington 2022 Congress: Excerpts from the Blog

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The four in-person Digital Engagement Volunteers at the IIC Wellington 2022 Congress. Image by Nyssa Mildwaters.

In this issue the event reviews section is, not surprisingly, dedicated to the IIC Wellington 2022 Congress. Below are excerpts from the thoughtful and personal essays written for the IIC Congress Blog by our stellar Digital Engagement Volunteers, without whom the Congress could not have run so smoothly. Please enjoy their insightful and inspiring perspectives on the week’s presentations and events; you can enjoy the entire Blog on the Congress information website.

(from review by Ahmed Shayo)

As a history student, I find myself drawn to the stories that lie behind the things we see. Quite often, the world around us is filled with so many ‘whys’ that constitute the presentation of the things we see at present. This especially applies in the field of heritage conservation, in which we encounter a kaleidoscope of artefacts, both tangible and intangible, that demonstrate the ‘whys’ of a people, and how they have become who they are.

Lamu Old Town is a constant demonstration of this, where its Swahili residents imbue the historic town with living culture traditions; from attire and accessories to their language and their buildings, each latter component crowning the other with a finer, unique detail exuded from the former. My exposure to this world of culture marked the beginning of a passionate need to promote the beauty of existing heritage while also advocating for the development of our conservation measures which, in the face of increasing climate-attributed threats, demand even more attention to strengthen the Old Town’s resilience against the destructive effects of the environment around it.

In September 2022, the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works held its 29th Annual Congress in Wellington, New Zealand, bringing together conservators from around the world and holding discussions on advanced approaches to conservation practice. This couldn’t have come at a more important moment, especially when the world is rebuilding itself after the plight of a pandemic that upheaved the lives of many across the globe. As a selected Digital Engagement Volunteer, I found it imperative to take active participation in the week-long forum to understand how my more informed contemporaries in this field of knowledge have begun adopting and implementing sustainable practices that will continue to support and value museum collections across the world.

The opening ceremony was marked with a welcoming of guests and dignitaries to the launch of the event. As is tradition in the Māori culture, the hosts treated their guests to a Mihi whakatau, traditionally conducted in the Māori language. The Mihi whakatau is meant to remove the tapu (restrictions) of the Manuhiri (visitors) to make them one with the Tangata Wheua (hosts). The Māori language is closely related to Cook Islands Māori, Tuamotuan and Tahitian. It gained recognition as one of New Zealand's official languages in 1987. This was to me a remarkable thing to witness, as the act of honouring guests resonates with Islamic traditions entrenched in Lamu Old Town, where guests are treated to dances and poems of praise.

(from review by Sam Finch and Lucilla Ronai)

On the first day of the IIC Congress, we were treated to a lecture from this year’s Forbes Prize lecturer, Vicki-Anne Heikell. The Forbes Prize is awarded to someone who has made an outstanding contribution to the field, something that Vicki-Anne Heikell is more than worthy of. Her career as a paper conservator has seen her working at such institutions as Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand, the Alexander Turnbull Library and the National Library of New Zealand, which is currently home to an incredible exhibition she helped put together; the He Tohu exhibition showcases the three foundational documents of Aotearoa New Zealand: The Declaration of Independence 1835, Te Tiriti o Waitangi (The Treaty of Waitangi) 1840 and the Women’s Suffrage Petition 1893.

After introducing herself in the traditional pepeha, her talk entitled “Having Faith in Ourselves” opened with poem. This is a mihi, an acknowledgement, to the women who have been before her, who recognised that conservation was important and that Māori women have something to offer—a theme that she drew on throughout her talk. She asked us what role we as conservators have in supporting communities, sharing and reviving knowledge, and reminded us that cultural value does not come from an object’s mere existence but from the object’s creation and use. She asked us to challenge how we see conservation and our roles—something we should reflect upon during this congress. Vicki-Anne also introduced the audience to the concept of āta and how we can utilise it as a guide for what we do and how we do it. Her talk was moving and made me reflect on how I approach conservation and my own, admittedly small, role in this field.

Vicki-Anne was not alone in this session, and she called upon two other women to present short talks with her; the first was Dr Rangi Te Kanawa, a conservator of textiles and a traditional weaver. After her pepeha, Dr Te Kanawa regaled us with the story of Māori creation. Her talk discussed Māori weaving and its resurgence in traditional methods. She told us about the Ministry of Cultural Heritage’s mandates on the treatment of taonga (treasures) and presented some of the difficulties in caring for woven objects, such as cleaning. Perhaps the biggest takeaway for me was in the later part of her talk when she discussed the lack of successors to the current generation of Māori conservators and the lack of Pacific conservators in Aotearoa. There is great cultural value in supporting local practitioners, she told us, and in order to recapture and respect the traditional know-ledge, we must all work together.

The final of our three speakers was Puawai Cairns from Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand. She was not able to attend in person, and so a pre-recorded talk was played. Following her pepeha, Puawai began with a controversial topic: Kim Kardashian and Marilyn Monroe’s dress. When Kim Kardashian wore the dress at the Met Gala this year, there was a great backlash across the world.

Amongst this was a statement from ICOM’s Costume Committee who believed that no historic textiles should be worn and that items such as the dress in question should be kept for future generations. Puawai pointed out how limited this view is especially in regard to living cultures’ material, and she responded publicly online to this statement. She discussed with us her experience criticising ICOM’s online reaction, pointing out the difference between how her response was treated and how others’ were treated. It is interesting to reflect on her talk, as I remember the media coverage of her critique of ICOM’s statement, and without context it didn’t make a lot of sense to me. But after hearing her explanation on the need to expand our idea of how living cultural objects are used, especially by communities, she completely changed my mind. 

The session ended with a waiata song—a beautiful way to conclude a truly moving group of talks from three inspirational wahine toa.

(from review by Benjamin Francis Lew)

Kōrerorero: (verb or noun) a conversation.

After a day of education, decolonisation and community consultation sessions, IIC delegates (live and online from Wellington) attended an IIC Dialogue to review proceedings and the state of indigenous conservation.

Māori conservators Rose Evans, Tharron Blomfield, Kararaina Te Ira, Erina McCann and Jade Hadfield met to discuss the issues and themes that have influenced and affected their careers in conservation.

The panel—moderated by Curator Māori Alexander Turnbull Library, writer, journalist and broadcaster Paul Diamond (Ngāti Hauā, Te Rarawa, Ngapuhi)—touched on topics such as working with taonga (here referring to heritage objects) carrying māturanga (cultural knowledge) overseas, the impact of historic trauma, ethical responsibilities to community, what you don’t learn at university and the blockages that there can be in the profession.

In the discussion that followed, the fundamental role that taonga Māori (Māori cultural material) play in binding together culture and community filled the room. Perspectives varied on certain issues, such as what role Australia, with its “whole other world of Museums” (Paul Diamond) and specialist conservation higher education courses, had to play for the next generation of Māori conservators; whether taonga Māori could be appropriately cared for overseas, and whether museums could truly be fully decolonised (picking up from Irit Narkiss’ claim to the contrary in Session 2). While all panellists acknowledged the collaborative role that international institutions had to play, there was a resounding feeling, best expressed by Rose Evans, that Aotearoa is now past collaboration and moving into self-direction for its own cultural material and welfare.

The local subject matter and personal atmosphere elicited questions from the audience in Wellington. Panellists acknowledged the financial, familial and community difficulties with overseas study and sought to redress the way the institutions treat young Māori conservators: “it’s the sector that needs to change, not us” (Jade Hadfield).  Some principles were discussed regarding how to best support Māori in the sector, as well as how to best incorporate learnings into existing policy and governance. The strong ethic of unity and care that shone through the panel yields abundant insight into what Westerners stand to learn from mātauranga Māori.

(from review by Jessica Argall and Rachel Davis)

Wednesday in Wellington started off with talks focusing on leadership and management in conservation. Anisha Gupta led the day’s presentations discussing her work with Joelle Wickens. They delved into the dominant white supremacy culture (WSC) in the United States and how this affects the conservation profession. The use of a “white supremacy” label might feel confrontational, but as Gupta extrapolated, this was not a discussion of white nationalism, riots and the Ku Klux Klan, but rather focused on the attitudes and behaviours seen in the white, dominant culture of the United States. Some of these behaviours, described by Tema Okun and Kenneth Jones, can be viewed as beneficial for a conservator, such as perfectionism and objectivity. However, these characteristics are ultimately exclusionary, and do not promote diversity in the profession.

What I was really taken with, in regards to Gupta and Wickens’ work, was their recognition that they had previously judged a programme—the Fellowship in Native American Collection Care—as successful based on paternalistic WSC parameters and values. However, looking at the programme through the lens of those it aimed to help, they realised that they might no longer be able to view the programme as successful. This honest re-evaluation is something we may wish to shy away from, however, as Gupta expanded on the issue in the Q&A session following the presentations, we can learn to pick apart our actions as we go—or better, from the outset—and start to dismantle the often unseen WSC behaviours.

Australian conservators Eleanor Vallier and Hanna Sandgren then presented on the establishment of the Collingwood Collective in Melbourne. The collective was formed in response to a precarious, contract-based conservation job market and decreasing funding for the arts which was directly affecting conservation employment. The benefits of their model, in which multiple conservation businesses share studio space and resources, allows the members to assign jobs to relevant businesses according to each other's strengths, tackle large contracts and share knowledge with one another. It strikes me that this kind of model truly promotes the interdisciplinarity of conservation and could be a tangible method of expanding diversity in conservation. The nature of the conservation job market has been well discussed at numerous points throughout the Congress, and as such, this presentation led me to wonder whether such conservation collective models could be taken up in other geographical locations and in response to varied circumstances.

Lastly, Jane Henderson wrapped up the session with a discussion on how to affect positive change. The conservation field has often been stereotyped as the people who say “no” and seen as trying to halt change in many ways. But as one of her slides explained, in all caps no less, CHANGE IS COMING. So how can conservators embrace this and make sure it is positive and inclusive? Jane’s paper delves into this eloquently and provides an inspiring means for how we can take action with our colleagues and communities.

Through discussions of both major projects and the sector at large, the day’s presentations on leadership and management encouraged conservators to consider, interrogate and become finely attuned to their position and relationships in a variety of contexts. As has been a thread throughout many sessions, presenters encouraged people -centred approaches and the critical importance of community and collaboration. These papers ask that we, as individuals and a profession, not only embrace change but advocate for it, welcoming the challenges and improvements that it poses to our methods of leadership and management.

(from review by Ahmed Shayo)

The African Regional Hub was a live (online) session held on the 7th of September and included a host of African attendees that joined the Zoom chat to listen to a diverse panel of Congress authors discussing topics such as modern approaches to wooden heritage conservation, the transitioning of conservation practices to a performative turn, the development of climate-control strategies as well as the detection of ethnocentricity in conservation practice. Much of the dialogue following the presentations shifted to discussing and interrogating ways that African objects can be repatriated back to their home countries. Discussions also covered the development of synergies between institutions around the world to take effective climate action and share ideas on how to model strategies that better respond to existing environmental problems around the conservation of artefacts in collections.

This also provided an opportunity for me to engage with authors such as Joel Taylor, whose input in the paper “Conservation in a Performative Turn” sparked my curiosity about the way in which conservation activities are slowly evolving to accommodate more value-led approaches.

(from review by Roos van der Helm)

Thursday's sessions started off wonderfully with Helen Lloyd and Katy Lithgow presenting their shared 73 years of experience in conserving historic house collections. Lloyd began by telling us all about the history and the evolution of the term housekeeping. She took us back to Europe, long ago, when people started keeping house. During her talk we travelled to the Middle Ages, when windows with shutters became more common, something that is quite favourable for both people and objects. From there we skipped to the 17th century when people stepped it up a bit and started using curtains and kept records of their housekeeping. Lloyd went on to explain that today's preventive conservators still use similar methods as were used in earlier times. Of course, today it is also substantiated by scientific research and risk analysis. She gives the ABC method as an example.

Because of economic depression and post-war wealth taxes in the UK, historic houses fell into the care of public institutions and charities and often became museums. Because of this, a lot of houses were restored to their “best period” removing later changes. It was only more recently that appreciation came for all the historical changes the houses went through. Because many traditional skills associated with the houses had disappeared over the years, there was no trust in the ability of these historical buildings to house important collections. The National Trust ordered an investigation in the rediscovery of these lost skills. This, combined with scientific research, resulted in the publication of the Manual of Housekeeping. Lloyd then explained that, as a result, historical house caretakers became more professional.

Lithgow’s presentation was focused on the “now” of housekeeping, rather than the history. She explained how housekeeping has evolved from taking care of people and their objects to preventive conservation which benefits the public. Collections care measures, based on good housekeeping, benefit collections which feature quantity as well as quality by improving storage, monitoring and sensitive cleaning. This allows heritage institutions to expand their collections. Lithgow told us how the benefits of housekeeping go beyond the preservation of objects. Because of its traditional nature, housekeeping generally has a low carbon footprint and uses low energy methods. Lithgow added that it's time for conservators to step away from their invisibility cloak and to take credit for all the amazing work they do.

I must say, I very much enjoyed the presentation. Next to being informative, it was also quite amusing, with talk of cake and Harry Potter analogies. Although I thought this talk was educational, I would have liked to hear more about the history of housekeeping in other parts of the world. Of course, I do understand that both Lloyd and Lithgow gained their years of experience in the UK, and this was a fairly short presentation, limiting the possible scope.

(from review by Alex Taylor)

This year’s Congress was inspirational. It covered relevant, key topics in conservation discourse. The hybridised nature of the five-day programme made Congress distinctive and dynamic, setting the bar for inclusive exchange. Yet, no one could have predicted the week to unfold the way that it did, with the death of Queen Elizabeth II; and although the ending was raw and heartfelt, it did more to capture the subtle nuances that exist in simply being human: warmth, kindness, compassion, respect within leadership, adaption, response and change.

Culture lies at the heart of everything; our very natures are entwined in it. In some ways history is a record of time passing, but it also marks shifting thought, expression and action in the present. Some speakers highlighted the complicated juxtaposition of allocating agency to static things and in doing so posed the question: are objects static in nature at all?

Just as one chapter closes, another opens. Change is inevitable, and that’s a beautiful, marvellous thing. 

(See all the amazing images and get a link to read the other Blog posts in the October-November 2022 "News in Conservation" Issue 92, p. 60-66)

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Here you will find excerpts from the thoughtful and personal essays written for the IIC Congress Blog by our stellar Digital Engagement Volunteers, without whom the Congress could not have run so smoothly.
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