Sometimes revolutions begin with an explosion, creating radical change in an instant. Other times they start small, bubbling up in fits and bursts amongst the ranks until change becomes a slow growing inevitability. As a conservation student I have become witness to the latter within the conservation field. I have seen statements of frustration and discontent posted on online forums about the future of the heritage sector.
I have read documents produced by professional associations stating low pay rates and negligible salary growth, listened to apathetic recent graduates about lack of jobs and funding, and stressed about my own irateness within a field that feels twice as competitive as the medical profession with a third of the public recognition. Yet I believe that all of these rumblings from deep within internet forums, conference Q&A sessions, and yearly labour market intelligence statements are the bubbles of revolution that have been brewing for a few years.
From May 16th-17th 2014, University College London’s Institute of Archaeology held a conference entitled “The impact of cross-disciplinary conservation on social development” through the Conservation and Development Research Network.
What began as a conference about interdisciplinary approaches to conservation evolved into a discussion between seasoned conservators and students about the disillusionment and frustration frequent amongst the new generation of conservators.
The following are the fruits of this discussion, suggestions for those newly entering the field that I personally found both enlightening and empowering:
1) When filling out job and grant applications, make sure that you include in your application how you would help and contribute to the museum and their current goals. Many of the speakers said that they receive a large number of applications that talk a lot about the applicant, but say nothing about how they will be a good, and necessary addition to the museum or business that they are applying for.
2) Be an activist. Be an activist for your museum, for a heritage cause and for what you are passionate about. Sitting at your bench working silently with your head down will probably preserve a lot of objects, but having an idea and a cause to work for will do some real good for cultural heritage and the world.
3) Be prepared to diversify, and not just your material type. Diversify your involvement within the museum and within the heritage sector. Museums are starting to look for people who can do outreach and education as an important part of industry employment. Diversifying the ways that you can contribute to a functioning museum will increase your likelihood for employment.
4) Be prepared to talk to people. A lot. The conservation profession is increasingly moving away from simply working in the lab, away from people and absorbed in object work. Especially with the increasing emphasis on stakeholder communication, and legislation like NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) and the Burra Charter, conservators are communicating actively with people outside of the conservation profession. These shouldn't be seen as detriments to conservation. Rather, they are new advances, where we as conservators and guardians of cultural heritage are able to learn new things from the people who are intimately connected to what we care for. It also means communicating with the lay public, who may not know that conservation exists. If we want to be more respected within the museum community, we need to let them know that we are here, that we are integral to heritage preservation, and we need to be loud about it.
5) Be flexible. This may be hard for people with children or with partners, but everyone has talked about the need for flexibility. There needs to be flexibility in the kinds of jobs that you pursue and in the places that you live. You may not get a job in the city that you currently live in after you graduate. The job that you get may also not be in the area that you want to specialize in. You must be able to move, and you must be able to move relatively frequently. A lot of conservation jobs are on contract. This is hard for some people, but it is the nature of the profession.
6) Be prepared to spend your first few years, maybe even a while, doing something that you didn't intend on doing when you graduated. This may mean not doing lab work, and doing outreach work instead. Or doing preventive conservation instead of remedial treatments. A lot of the successful conservators that I spoke with also do a lot of desk work, with actual treatments constituting far less of their time than you would expect. Conservation has become grant writing, outreach, teaching, surveying, writing, and most importantly communication with non-conservators.
My fellow students and I who attended the conference referred to it as “the revolution”. Although these suggestions are not a guaranteed fix for the new generation, and though it may not be the revolution that many have imagined, it is certainly the beginnings of a change. It marks a transformation in the way that we as conservators interact with the public and our peers, a change in the types of conservation that we do and the jobs that we seek, and a step away from the cynicism and disappointment felt by so many recent graduates. It is the revolution that I think we have been waiting for, and it is this revolution that I am excited to be a part of.