By Joyce Hill Stoner and Rebecca Rushfield
Suppose you are writing an obituary or putting together a tribute to accompany an award for a pioneer conservator or conservation scientist? What if you’re researching the history of an important museum conservation department or debating whether you should found your own oral history project? Your boss for 40 years is about to retire, and you’d like to carry out an in-depth interview with that person and make sure it is saved as a resource for others to consult in the future. How do you design release forms and guidelines for conducting interviews? In the movie Ghostbusters the audience was asked “Who ya gonna call [to deal with ghosts]?” However, that was over 30 years ago, and now we have e-mail!
The Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation - Oral History Project (FAIC OHP) now has over 380 interview transcripts that were carried out by more than 125 international interviewers. For instance, in the last three years, researchers have sought information on Jonathan Ashley-Smith, Agnes Ballestrem, Christopher Clarkson, Louis de Wild, Robert Feller, Margaret Fikioris, Karen Finch, Bettina Jessell, Sheldon and Caroline Keck, Anton Konrad, Mario Modestini, Elisabeth Packard, Paul Philippot, Louis Pomerantz, Sandy Webber, and Marilyn Weidner, among others.
Since 2016, transcripts have been requested to research the histories of: The British Museum; conservation training, especially in the UK; the Florence Flood, The National Portrait Gallery, London; paintings conservation, especially in Europe and the UK; paper conservation; The Rijksmuseum; photographic materials conservation, and Technical Art History.
Rebecca and/or I have recently consulted with the Art Institute of Chicago; the Camberwell College, London; The Canadian Conservation Institute; The Eastman House; and the Williamstown Art Conservation Center about their recent forays into oral history. Collaborative efforts are now in place with the Canadian Association of Conservators; Columbia University’s oral history project; the International Council of Museums-Committee for Conservation (ICOM-CC) Theory, History, and Ethics Working Group; the Southeast Regional Conservation Association (SERCA); and the International Association of Book and Paper Conservators. New volunteer interviewers--from Zimbawe to Portland, Oregon--have signed up to join the 100+ interviewers already represented in the file.
Rebecca was asked to write a paper on the FAIC OHP for the British Institute of Conservation (Icon) publication (Icon News, No. 70, June 2017). Alison Richmond of London, who has carried out a number of FAIC interviews, gave Rebecca this statement to include:
"I have found interviewing senior members of the conservation and heritage science professions has increased my already considerable appreciation for the contribution that these individuals and many others have made to the development of our profession. I feel that today’s conservators stand on the shoulders of these remarkable people. The fact that we have come such a long way in a relatively short time is largely due to their commitment to defining the emerging professions of conservator and heritage scientist. I have learned so much, not only about what happened before I entered the field but also about the historical development of disciplines other than my own. I feel this is a very important perspective for the head of the profession in the UK to have."
Especially dedicated past users of the file have included Francesca Bewer (for the history of conservation at the Fogg Art Museum), Morwenna Blewett (for her ongoing research project about historical European conservators), Ellen Cunningham-Kruppa (for her dissertation on the contributions of Paul Banks to the history of book and paper conservation), and Jean Portell (for her biography of Sheldon and Caroline Keck). Ellen Cunningham-Kruppa noted:
"Much of the primary action in my dissertation took place in the 1960s and ‘70s. Many of the people and events I needed to learn more about were early actors in the conservation field. Sadly, a good many are deceased or are aged with somewhat shaky memories. Hence the robust library of FAIC oral histories was absolutely critical to my ability to piece together an historical dialog. In many instances, the oral histories were the ONLY biographical material available. In my research I attempted to triangulate primary sources to hear a range of perspectives on any historical moment in our field. Combined with archival materials, additional oral interviews I conducted, and secondary sources, the oral histories allowed me a richer narrative to analyze."
George Stout told us, when the FAIC OHP project was first founded, that it should always be an “international” initiative, as he felt the conservation world in different continents was always and should continue to be interconnected. We welcome additional international volunteers in addition to volunteer translators. Who ya gonna e-mail? Joyce Hill Stoner firstname.lastname@example.org or Rebecca Rushfield Wittert email@example.com.
Joyce Hill Stoner, PhD, founded the FAIC Oral History Project in 1975 at the advice of R.J. Gettens and George L. Stout. She studied conservation and art history at the NYU IFA and has taught paintings conservation for the Winterthur/UD Program in Art Conservation for 42 years.
Rebecca Anne Rushfield is a New York City-based consultant in conservation who studied art history and art conservation at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. She is the Associate Director of the FAIC’s Oral History Project.