By Ariana Makau
In December 2019, when I was initially asked to participate in the Women in Preservation Symposium sponsored by the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America and the Smithsonian Institution, I immediately said “Yes!”. The idea of gathering in 2020 in our nation’s capital, representing preservation throughout the states, was exciting. When I was told I was going to be on a panel with others who had, like me, chosen a path of working outside of an art institution, I was invigorated. Finally, I’d be able to rub shoulders with “my” people, share favorite tools and techniques, and commiserate over stories where we’d been overlooked simply because of our gender even though “on paper, you’re overqualified”. And then... the pandemic hit.
Over a year later on April 5-7, 2021, we did end up gathering (albeit virtually), and collectively we were stronger for it. Missing were chance meetings between talks, coffee break chats, and impromptu after-conference meals. Also gone were the glitchy technical difficulties of early-pandemic Zoom presentations: accidentally muted mics and amateur graphics. Something better had emerged.
The speakers were diverse in age, preservation specialty, and self-identity, which was made more apparent by the intimacy of the video presentations. Clearly visible was the passion and knowledge each had about their subject matter. In many cases, multiple faces filled up the screen giving various perspectives on a common subject. The talks will be available eventually online, and I encourage everyone to take time to review them. A few sessions resonated with me particularly.
Preservation by All, for All: Uncovering stories, updating narratives and removing barriers so that everyone has a seat at the preservation table was facilitated by Dr. Michelle Magalong who talked about her work at the intersection of community engagement, historic preservation, and social justice as president of Asian and Pacific Islander Americans in Historic Preservation (APIAHiP). The group also featured Ty Ginter who shared their background of co-founding D.C.’s Dykaries plus Dr. Sarah Zenaida Gould who spoke about her work at the Mexican American Civil Rights Institute. Monica Montgomery, curator of social justice, programs & special projects (Arts and Industries Building at the Smithsonian Institution) reminded people to look at the task of the session’s theme by thinking about it as “the room (the problem), the table (the process), the seat (an invitation to pivot)”. All four exemplified that their groups are more than extant. The work to be done now is acknowledging there is “room for everyone at the table”—one speaker deftly continued the metaphor stating that some people arrive enabled with their own (wheel)chairs while others may prefer to stand. My takeaway was that there are already many adept voices from within our communities if we take time to listen, amplify, and elevate. It is no longer acceptable to speak on behalf of the “other”. Primary sources are prevalent and take precedence.
Speaking of Preservation: Ensuring that language of yesterday is spoken tomorrow was a conversation between three women who talked about the power of language to represent a culture. Each woman spoke from a location in which they had focused their life’s work: Mary Linn was in D. C. in her role as curator of cultural and lin-guistic revitalization at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage; Ka’iulani Laeha, chief executive officer, ‘Aha Pūnana Leo, was in Hawaii; and Dr. Siri Tuttle spoke from her position as director of the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Alaska. It’s becoming more common for people to note the provenance of the land in which they live and work; I, for example, write this from the unceded land of the Ohlone in Oakland, California. The literal provenance of their individual presentations carried more gravitas, with the inherent powershift of three points on the globe filling equal space on the screen, than being gathered at our nation’s capital.
Being able to see them speak the languages up close while hearing them is something that wouldn’t have been possible in a traditional auditorium. I was grateful for the more intimate setting—to have them speak to me directly through my earphones. It was a reminder that preservationists are often called to our profession by connecting with our work via multiple senses.
In my session, Safekeeping Tomorrow: Part II: Using tools, determination and passion to serve, preserve and protect the past, I was joined by Janice Ellis, conservator at the National Museum of American History; Lindsey Jones, owner of Blind Eye Restoration; and Katherine Ridgway, state archaeological conservator for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. I shared that having started out working in museums like the V&A, the Met and the Getty, then founding my company nearly 20 years ago, I’ve experienced my own shift of what and who should be valued.
Out of the nearly 30 employees who have worked at Nzilani, only two others had master’s degrees in conservation like myself. Having a narrow vision of who is qualified eliminates a wide swath of skilled people who want to contribute to the world of preservation and may be limited only by lack of opportunity. Valuing different ways of learning paired with variable skill sets will expand the possibilities of who can be part of our workforce. Our field includes: art history, research, math, drawing, working with your hands, troubleshooting, and building things. You can learn these skills at college, an internship, or on the job. Opening up the field is only going to strengthen the profession as a whole.
If there was an overarching theme to the conference, it was that the interests and presenters were as diverse and far-reaching as their subject matter. Although I look forward to a time when we can gather again in person, I am grateful for the unique experience this time has afforded us. Perhaps it even included a larger swath of the preservation community because we could come together as and where we were.
Ariana Makau is president and principal conservator of Nzilani Glass Conservation and holds an MA in Stained Glass Conservation from the V&A/RCA, in London, England. She has worked at the V&A, the Met, SFMoMA, and the J. Paul Getty Museum. Makau is a board member and safety chair of the Stained Glass Association of America (SGAA), and Fellow of the American Institute for Conservation (AIC).
(Read the article and watch the video in the June-July 2021 "News in Conservation" Issue 84, p.40-43)