Get out of the lab, now! By A. Cosentino

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A year ago NiC published an article from scientist/blogger Antonino Cosentino (NiC, Issue 34, February 2013), discussing how professionals should look at widening their horizons by getting familiar with new networking tools offered by the Web. His article received a very positive feedback both from seasoned and emerging professionals inspired by the article’s positive outlook and practical insights. A year on, we caught up with Antonino to get an update on projects and conservation life in general.

Just a year ago, I was writing on News in Conservation, about my blogging experience with”Cultural Heritage Science Open Source”. I was starting my own private practice in art diagnostics and I thought blogging would have been a nice way to keep in contact with friends and make new contacts with professionals. Indeed, it went much further. Blogging turned out to be a powerful networking tool. It is not just about gaining visibility; on a blog you can project what image you have of your professional goals. It is totally different than writing papers for a scientific journal. Those papers are and should be, formal. Very little of the author’s personality, dreams, passions and concerns can show up. Blogging, even on a technical subject as scientific art examination, is all about the author’s personality, long-term goals and aspirations. So, the blog encouraged like-minded people to get in contact with me. These people were professionals that, as we say, I clicked with. I started collaborations and projects with scholars I had never met in person and sometimes likely never will; I also got in contact with professionals living just few kilometres away from my lab, which I was not aware of, and I would have not been if not for my blog. A network of like-minded professionals was growing thanks to that blog. The next step once a network was built was to take action and start to dream bigger.
In addition to art diagnostics, I started offering training on technical imaging methods. I thought it would be fun to host students and professionals who wanted to learn something from me and I could learn something from them without moving a step from my studio! My first guest was Camilla Perondi, a student in Conservation Science from University of Bologna. She came to Aci Sant’Antonio, a small town in Sicily where I’m based and where nobody would expect anything relevant to art conservation to ever take place. Camilla is launching a start-up delivering low cost holographic and 3D services for art documentation. How interesting! Bringing a young, proactive and innovative brain to Sicily was already a noteworthy result. My land is a place of emigration. Usually, today and in the past, the best brains flee away from here.
In the beginning my idea was to use my lab as the main training place. I have paintings, pigments swatches, whatever test material I needed. But Camilla’s enthusiasm was overwhelming so I figure out I could get in contact with the town’s authorities and let have Camilla training on real pieces of art. After all, this is Sicily. There is art, archaeology, and architecture to train students interested in art conservation. The enthusiasm demonstrated by local authorities officers was a surprise and I was grateful for the opportunity to carry out the training on-site. Indeed, we ended up doing just fieldwork during this full-immersion opportunity. When I talk about local authorities I include civil and religious ones. In my experience, when it comes to scientific studies, churches can be definitely more accessible than museums.
I managed to invite a PhD student in Materials Science and Engineering applied to Cultural Heritage from the University of California San Diego, Samantha Stout. She is a material scientist, specialising in art examination at
CISA3’s field site in Florence. She was looking for art and archaeology case studies and so I suggested she joined us.
I was also interested in the regional comparison between two Italian regions: Tuscany and Sicily. Last Spring I was involved in the organisation of the International Workshop on Nuclear Magnetic Resonance in Volterra, Tuscany. I was so positively surprised seeing how proactive and well-organised local authorities had been to make the event happen. Indeed, many towns and villages in Tuscany host international schools, workshop, summer schools, a great number from American Universities. I don’t know of any in Sicily. Samantha was invited to dedicate some of her research time to our project and as part of her involvement she was to bring some analytical mobile equipment, to study Sicilian art and archaeology. As this research was to be for a PhD thesis, I had to expand the scope, and this is where my blog came handy. I did make contact through the blog with local professionals: Elisa Bonacini, an archaeologist interested to develop communication and educational tools for museums and Karen Abend, a freelance objects conservator from the U.S. involved in field projects such as the Morgantina excavations, where she has been working with an American team conserving the archaeological artefacts uncovered. Their involvement helped integrating Samantha’s research topic with the areas of Sicilian Cultural Heritage they were currently working on. I was happy to complement Samantha’s analytical studies with my imaging documentation. We managed to secure collaborations in 6 locations. Among the locations chosen, Morgantina is an archaeological site with the remains of a Greek colony. Syracuse was chosen for the late Roman Catacombs; Termini Imerese is home to Sicilian Baroque stucco, while Aci Sant’Antonio is famous for the traditional production of Sicilian carts.
Conservation in a difficult geographical/human context has a strong social value. It does help to increase awareness of cultural heritage both in governments as well as in the laymen. Some think that Italy's abundance of heritage sites has led to indifference. There have been cuts in funding from the government in the conservation field, but what I am most worried about is the indifference of the public. Involving international scholars at local level can create interest as opposed to indifference. When you see that somebody from California comes to your small village in the south of Italy using ‘fancy’ scientific equipment on frescoes that had been laying ignored forever, then you begin to arouse curiosity and therefore gain awareness. As for governments, indifference it is not just a question of money or lack thereof. It is profound, it is cultural. As an example, last Spring Volterra mayor’s office contacted the Italian National Television (tax-payers funded) to create interest in the NMR school in Volterra and to let them know about the research we were doing on the most important medieval fresco in town. Professional journalists and a camera crews came to film a documentary. Unfortunately the video was difficult to place within a palimpsest, as it was deemed not interesting enough to attract audiences.
My finals words - If we are interested to raise the laymen’s appreciation of cultural heritage, and this does apply to Italy but it’s equally true in many other countries, we really have to get out of the lab and learn to better communicate our profession to the public. This will in turn help to increase appreciation of local art by the people that can potentially enjoy it daily!

All Images in this article, unless differently attributed, are © Antonino Cosentino 2013