On the loss of hand skills in Conservation By Jonathan Ashley Smith

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Copyright Barbara Borghese

The nature of conservation practice is constantly changing. This constant change is reflected in the theme of next year’s IIC congress Preventive Conservation: the State of the Art. The call for papers stated that ‘the field has developed enormously since 1994: preventive conservation has a central position in museum, site and heritage management.’ As a profession, conservation is obviously proud of change, which is a bit ironic since conservation is concerned with attempts to prevent, inhibit, slow down or even reverse change. Would it be better to say that the nature of conservation practice is evolving? Evolution would be a good word if what was happening was a succession of small modifications leading to something with proven potential to survive in a changing environment. Yet evolution is a concept that embraces the idea that some features of the present scene will not survive.

A year ago I wrote a paper describing my worries that the practical skills needed for conservation treatments were at risk.1 It seems that others share this anxiety; in the past year I have corresponded with conservators and college lecturers in Europe, Australia and the USA who express the same concern. More than a year after it was published on-line, the paper I wrote is still being downloaded. Reaction to a warning about the loss of skills is a bit like reaction to the threat of climate change. The transition is slow and unevenly spread. There is a lot of short-term defensive thinking. There is enough variability to allow some scepticism or, in some cases, downright disbelief. People who feel that the problem is real and serious are not certain what steps they can take as individuals, or that individual action will have any effect. They hope that some unnamed organisation will get to grips with the situation. And as with climate change there may well be a tipping point, after which it will be very difficult to reverse the trend.

Why worry? The subjects chosen for recent national conferences suggest a belief that hand skills continue to be important to the practice of conservation. The American Institute for Conservation chose ‘Treatment’ as its theme this summer, and hands-on conservation is the subject for the 2018 conference of the Canadian Association for Conservation of Cultural Property. However the underlying situation that caused me to write about the risk of a decline in skills remains unchanged. There is still a wide held prejudice that brainwork is superior to handwork. This affects schooling and training from childhood to post-graduate conservation courses. It affects the policies of higher education establishments that have to respond to the availability of funding. Some changes are measurable; the proportion of time spent by museum conservation departments on practical intervention is decreasing. In many institutions the number of permanently employed conservators has also decreased. This has a knock-on effect on the range of subjects that colleges teach to ensure the employability of their graduates, and on the availability of suitable internships. The potential saviours of this situation work in the private sector, but they too are prey to economic shifts and may not be in a position to help with the development of fresh graduates.

Against this background it was good to attend the IIC 2017 Student & Emerging Conservator Conference held in Bern in mid-October. I did this a few weeks after the event by watching the videos of the three discussion sessions.2 It was easy to become fully immersed and believe that I was actually there. The theme of the conference was inspired by the words of Swiss educational philosopher Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi who advised that education should involve an equilibrium between the elements head, heart and hand, and that there were dangers in concentrating on just one of these. Each of the three conference sessions was centred on one of these elements. The importance of hand-skills was mentioned several times by members of the expert panels. There were calls to balance theory and practice and reminders of the necessity of working to develop practical skills.

When speaking to an audience of English conservators it is difficult to introduce the words craft and craftsmanship without causing offence or misunderstanding. Many of the participants in the discussions did not have English as a first language, so the opportunities for failures of communication were increased. The word craft can be used as the equivalent description of the practical skills necessary in conservation treatment. Alternatively the word can be used to refer to an activity far beneath the dignity of an academically trained conservator. This dilemma epitomises the task conservators frequently face, having to explain to those in authority that they are intelligent people who work with their hands. The students and emerging conservators had other worries: how to start a business, how to promote oneself, how to combat low status and low pay. There was even a discussion of what has almost become a taboo subject, the gender imbalance in the profession.

The fact that young people want to discuss these things, and to invite people with more experience to join the discussion, has to be good. There have been other events that ought to please me and stop me being so depressed. I have been approached by several graduate students hoping to write their dissertations on the role of craft skills in conservation. In the UK, new models for education that might help preserve practical skill are being considered. New routes into the profession via apprenticeship or technician qualification are being trialled. On the other hand I am utterly depressed by the plans to stop or modify the MA conservation course at Camberwell College, London. The reason given being that ‘the course is running at a high cost per student in comparison with the average degree course within the arts college’. I am disturbed by the recent news of further budget cuts to UK local authorities, which will inevitably impact on their museum services. I am depressed by recent reports that UK government policy continues to disincentivise the teaching of practical skills at primary and secondary schools, totally ignoring Pestalozzi’s model.

But if I want to be cheered up I can always turn to News in Conservation with its global view and frequent features on conservators actually getting on with practical conservation.

1. ‘Losing the edge: the risk of a decline in practical skills’. Journal of the Institute of Conservation Vol. 39 , Iss. 2, 2016. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/19455224.2016.1210015

2. https://www.iicbern2017.ch/web-broadcast/

Jonathan Ashley-Smith was head of the conservation department at V&A, London 1977-2002. He was visiting professor at RCA/V&A Conservation 2000-2010 and IIC Secretary General 2003-2006. He is a mentor for the PACR accreditation scheme.