Over Time: the IIC-Student & Emerging Conservator Conferences 2011-2019

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Participants talking between sessions at the 2013 IIC-SECC in Copenhagen. Photograph by Mikkel Scharff.

By Mariana Escamilla and Charlotte Hoffmann, with Jo Kirby Atkinson and Mikkel Scharff 

The IIC- Student and Emerging Conservator Conference (S&ECC) offers an open platform for young professionals to network with peers and experienced professionals while discussing relevant topics of the profession. Unlike most conservation conferences, the IIC-S&ECCs do not aim to present recent research; rather, their goal is to help develop emerging conservators and to promote the enthusiasm of students.

At the core of these conferences is the fact that they are set up, structured and carried out by students themselves. Although supported by IIC and the host institution, the students are responsible for everything from organization and budget to the finalisation of the event. The first IIC-S&EC conference was held in 2011 in London. Since then the conference has been held every two years; 2013 in Copenhagen, 2015 in Warsaw, 2017 in Bern and 2019 in Cologne. Although the participants have always been international, students located further away from the venue are able to join and discuss through the live online broadcasting of the conference.

By establishing a forum where these discussions can take place, IIC instigated a tradition that students look forward to every other year. In this article honouring the 70th anniversary of IIC, and as active participants of various past IIC-S&ECCs, we would like to tell the story of how this all began, including interesting and relevant discussions from these conferences. Finally, we will outline which future discussions might be relevant for the rising generation.

The Beginning

To find out more about the beginnings of the IIC-S&ECC, we interviewed Jo Kirby Atkinson and Mikkel Scharff. Both were part of the team that shaped the first IIC-S&EC conference in 2011 and have been involved in the organisation of the conferences ever since.

Q: How did the idea develop?

Mikkel: “I think the idea of setting up a separate S&ECC conference in London in 2011 took off from the Istanbul meeting [2010 Congress] [...] some students approached the IIC office to discuss the possibility.”

Adam M. Klupś, at the time studying for an MA in conservation at the University College London, was one of the students participating in this meeting.

Jo: “He was struck by the fact that there was no conference or other event to help students of conservation and conservators just starting their careers and contacted the IIC office with the idea of organising something, under the auspices of IIC. This would be different from the usual run of student conferences where students present their final year projects.”

Q: How did the first team of students organise the event and what was their goal for this first chapter?

After the idea was brought to IIC Council, a small group—including Graham Voce, Mikkel Scharff and Jo Kirby Atkinson—further developed the idea together with the students.

Mikkel: “During the winter 2010-2011, the student group got organized to set up a formal organisation, planning the event itself, budget, location, possibility of web-casting the conference live, discussing the possibility of producing transcripts of sessions to be made available afterwards.”

Jo: “From the start, though, the whole point was that the students should organise the event, not the IIC office or Council members: we could, however, advise and make suggestions if people got stuck.”

Adam Klupś dedicated a lot of energy to the planning and shaping of the conference together with the co-organisers Kathleen Froyen and Marie Louise Liwanag, University College London, and Francesca Lemass and Liz Ralph, Camberwell College of Arts, London. Integral from this first conference was the plan to give students abroad the opportunity to participate in the discussion by commenting or asking questions on-line, via social media.

Mikkel: “Other ideas that grew up were the content of the sessions, their number (three), length, number of panellists, time of day for each of the sessions - giving possibility to have early and late sessions to accommodate possible participants from North America to Australia participate.”

Mikkel: “[...] after this second conference I felt quite sure that the initiative was to continue ... as it did in the following bienial S&ECC conferences.”

The past and the present

Jo: “[...] students or newly qualified conservators attending such an event will recognise that some of the questions asked or discussed are not new; other people have had the same worries in the past.”

Despite the very different themes of the conferences, as well as the speakers’ backgrounds and specialties, various discussions return to almost every IIC-S&ECC. As the profession has progressed with time, so has the discourse equally developed. The reappearance of certain topics in these discussions highlights how the profession has or has not grown in different directions.

One of the most discussed topics during the conferences is unpaid internships and low salaries and how these have affected the profession and its diversity:

Sarah Staniforth (Warsaw 2015 Session 3): “Unpaid internships are impacting the lack of diversity in the profession. [...]”

Audience Member (Warsaw 2015 Session 3): “[...] it was said that what makes the difference when we all have the same qualifications and skills is people showing extra passion by doing (unpaid) internships, but the thing is that I would argue, that that actually shows extra wealth or privilege and that [...] is making the profession for [...] people with means and potentially less meritocratic.”

The conclusions in this regard have always encouraged the future generations to enhance the visibility of the profession, making the need for the conservation profession clear, as apparently, the profession still has not gained sufficient acknowledgement even from within the museum environment:

Tiarna Doherty (Warsaw 2015 Session 3): [...] I have been shocked, personally, by how so many colleagues in museums still do not understand what conservators do [...] this is something we need to work very hard at”.

Johanna Philipps (Cologne 2019 Session 2): “[a recurring topic is] frustration about the low salaries after years and years of academic training. Emerging conservators are rightfully upset. What does the low salary say about the recognition of our work - of our profession? Where does the conservator stand in the hierarchy of the museum? How do we collaborate with other departments if we are not regarded as equal players? Who gets the credit for our work? [...] Make sure you are mentioned on publications [...] be stringent like people in the sciences are [...] engage in art technology and research [....] we are still seen as manual labourers”.

Amber Kerr (London 2011 Session 2) “[...] an advantage that emerging conservators currently have is your knowledge of new media and how to communicate with it.”

This discussion is directly linked to the recurring topic of the acknowledgement of the profession and existing hierarchies in museums and other institutions:

Tiarna Doherty (Warsaw 2015 Session 3): “What is so difficult for us now, is that conservators are expected to be everything. Recently, I had a meeting in Washington DC with leaders in our field [...] to talk about how we can develop programs for conservators in management and leadership. [...] comments that the number one skill that distinguishes us as conservators in the museum profession is our ability to assess and treat objects.”

The low salaries and the lack of work placements after graduation, compared to students in other fields, worldwide, has been a recurrent topic. Strangely, these points do not seem congruous with the apparent need for conservators as well as the high level of education and standards that the profession requires.

The need for an accreditation system to comply with professional standards worldwide has also been mentioned at least once in every conference, setting the example of Icon’s accreditation system forward. An international accreditation of conservators would be a solution for this. However, there are different approaches and standards in different countries, and the organisation of such accreditation processes takes time and funds to accomplish.

Velson Horie (London 2011 Session 1): “A little dream that I have is that I would like to somehow get together a way of collaborating and co-ordinating the professionalisation efforts of different countries such as the ECCO standards, as well as the [Icon] PACR standards that are divergent. But it took 15 years in UK. It's going to be a generational change worldwide. So you [the younger generation] can do it!”

The “you can do it!” approach is the core aspect of all these conferences so far, empowering students and emerging conservators, motivating them to stand up for their professions and work towards a positive change in the near future.

Renate Poggendorf (Bern 2017 Session 3) “If you think circumstances of this profession are not yet satisfying, do something to change them. It needs effort, but it’s possible.”

Relevance of the conference for students and emerging conservators

After almost 10 years, it is clear that the contributions made during these events have marked the careers of both participants and organisers. Students and emerging conservators participating in past conferences have been able to establish contacts and even arrange internships in private studios and museums. Participants have also been able to network with other students or emerging conservators from various programmes to establish alliances and friendships that continue over the years. In time, this has helped to develop a larger sense of community for the profession. It is - as Jo stated in the interview - an “[...] invigorating experience the students receive when attending such a conference [...]”.

For the student group organising the conference, the S&ECCs offer essential experience in the planning of an international conference.

“The experience of organising an event is of lasting value. It gives a person confidence in his or her own abilities; confidence in approaching people; confidence in public speaking, at least to some extent; confidence in expressing ideas.”—Jo Kirby Atkinson

“Probably the most important aspect is the experience the group of students get when arranging such a conference - and for fellow students and participants to be able to participate in such a self-made event.” —Mikkel Scharff

The Future

This conference format represents a unique opportunity for finding and discussing new perspectives and for building up fruitful new relationships with fellow students and experienced professionals. We can securely say that this forum has transformed into an event that students around the globe look forward to, and we certainly hope that the format is preserved for many years to come.

Especially during these challenging pandemic times, the next conference in 2021 might be even more focused on online and web-casting tools. Nevertheless, the networking and profession-supporting focus of the event will remain. The discussions on how training and the profession have evolved through the current situation might be of particular interest. Furthermore, we expect topics such as sustainability, outreach and the further development of the profession to remain relevant topics in the coming conferences.

You can watch sessions from all the past S&ECC's using the links in the full story in the December-January 2021 "News in Conservation" Issue 81, p. 44-49, or by visiting the S&ECC page here: https://www.iiconservation.org/archives/student-conferences

Author bylines

Charlotte Hoffmann studied conservation of paintings, sculptures and modern art at the Cologne Institute of Conservation Sciences (CICS). In her master studies, she investigated the partial browning of green paint layers in 17th-century landscape paintings. This research led to her interest to study materials, techniques and colour change in green paint layers in 17th-century paintings. She is a PhD candidate in the Graduate Research Programme ‘Changing Frames’ since September 2020.

Mariana Escamilla is a recent graduate of the Cologne Institute of Conservation Sciences (CICS). Her master’s thesis focused on the investigation of ‘green’ solvents for their use on oil paintings. She is currently working as a paintings conservator at Studio Redivivus.


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At the core of these conferences is the fact that they are set up, structured and carried out by students themselves. Although supported by IIC and the host institution, the students are responsible for everything from organization and budget to the finalisation of the event.
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