May Day Twitter Conversation

May 3, 2009

In the spirit of Web 2.0, several conservators organized a May Day Twitter discussion of Richard McCoy’s recent article “Collaborating in the Public’s Domain.”  25 participants from 5 countries seems like an excellent start.  I was unable to participate, but having read over the feed, several things struck me.

The enforced brevity of the format (140 characters or less) really has an impact on the depth, and dare I say quality, of the conversation.  Long-form commentary is curtailed, replaced by an ever evolving string of responses, none of which ever seem to maintain the focus that they deserve.  As an exercise in thought-provocation, a number of interesting idea popped in and out of the discussion, but then too quickly were left behind for some other idea.  I recognize that I came of age in the ADD generation, but I found the lack of focus quite bothersome.

There were however some interesting thoughts that I think deserve to be parsed out.  I’ve selected a few relevant quotes, but in most cases, there is more discussion (if not more ideas) to be found.

1. Communication

vmuros: @LauraBrill #aic20 agree people intimated Feel many conservators scared 2 put info in public forum Don’t really understand why

mhearnsbishop: Seems privacy concerns stem from traditional notions of value. With accepted transparency dn the rd this shd not be issue any longer

walterhenry: I *still* get mail from conservators bitching that the DistList archives are public. Fear of misuse of info by untrained folks,

walterhenry: (fear) valid but misplaced. I still after all this time thnk the more we expose the conservator’s way of thinking, the better for all

I think that communication is a major concern for conservators because the work that we do inherently affects the value of  the items that we treat.  This is a major stumbling block for individuals working on privately held materials, but also for publicly held objects.  The curator/owner is viewed as the ultimate authority in regards to an object, and so conservators fear publicly discussing items that ultimately are in someone else’s care for fear of revealing too much information.

Is this right?  In the case of private ownership, it probably is, but in the case of public/institutional holdings, do we have an obligation to put as much information out there as possible?  If all that is holding conservators back are bureaucratic turf-wars, shouldn’t we work to overcome that?

2. Glorifying treatment.

AmberKerr: recently shocked by conserv who said some of us feel it’s a “fine line of glorifying conserv trmt over object” in use of social media #AIC20

This quote really struck me.  Isn’t the treatment part of the object?  Doesn’t our work become intimately entwined in the history, meaning, and interpretation of an object?  Why even care about that “fine line”?  If we glorify the treatment, isn’t that a sign of that value that we place upon the object?

Beyond the object, do conservators hold our work in such low esteem that some feel that we need to avoid any sort of public recognition?  Frankly, I think that if the field of conservation wants to fully utilize Web 2.0 to connect with the public, we need to begin “glorifying the treatment.”  Treatment, with all of its intimacy and impact, is the tool that we have to show the public that our work has value and impacts the public good.  If anything, we need to start putting up more Webpages showing BTs, Dts, and ATs that highlight specific treatments.

3. The ethics of communicating with the public.

DanielCull: @thevespiary Who is going to go around destroying stuff? Only conservators would be working on “conservation objects”. So what diff?

DanielCull: @thevespiary But they’re not “Conservation Objects”. They’re objects of value. There’s a difference. You’re not responsible for them.

QueenSuzy: @GOKConservator #AIC20: Whatever happened to Caveat Emptor? Aren’t we trained, after all, in critical thinking? Public, maybe not so much.

marialgilbert: #aic20 Sharing conservation best practices & methods helps inform general public to care for their own artifacts.

DanielCull: @MontanaR Why should people be stopped from conserving own art? Gardeners don’t stop you gardening ur garden, painters ur house? etc. #AIC20

On this point, I think that I have to vehemently disagree with Dan Cull’s comments regarding publishing resources that allow/encourage the public to conserve their own items.  After looking over his CV, I see that Dan is lacking in professional experience in a library or archival setting.  In museums or the world of fine art, I suspect that no untrained individuals would attempt a conservation treatment on an object that they own.  If you have a Rembrandt, you have the money and the wherewithal to pay someone to fix it up for you.  However, in libraries and archives (and even the rare book world), the value of the materials is not always so clear.

I have seen rare 17th century volumes placed into horrific library bindings.  I have seen important vital records “treated” with tape that has degraded to the point of making the text beneath it unreadable.  I have seen scrapbookers (which fyi will be the library and archives nightmare of the next 30 years) take their photographs and glue them up with “archival” adhesive and then slap them down on craft paper.  The point is that, at least in the library world, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.  As Queensuzy pointed out, a large part of our training is in critical thinking.  If we only provide the public with the tools, but not the in depth knowledge in how to apply them, items that might eventually enter into our cultural heritage will suffer badly.

4. Professional Associations.

richardmccoy: #AIC20 So, then what role do Professional Associations play? Do we need them anymore?

Wow.  I’m not even sure what to say about this one.  There are many issues with professional associations, but I don’t think that we are anywhere near the point (nor will we ever be near the point) where the tools of Web 2.0 can replace AIC, IIC, ICON, etc.  I’m going to sit on this further, but I suspect that Richard was posing a question for the sake of debate.


5 Responses to “May Day Twitter Conversation”

  1. dancull Says:


    (Sorry, I’d like to say who I’m saying hi to… ?)

    It’s great to see someone who wasn’t involved in the conversation in real time take an interest, and an active interest, and discuss it afterwards. You also raise some interesting points. I particularly like your discussion of the idea of “glorifying treatment”… its a shame you weren’t able to take part in the discussion, I do hope you’ll be able to take part in the ongoing discussions.

    I’m not sure if you’ve seen it (as it was posted after your post) but I made a summary of the discussion you (and your readers) maybe interested in, it can be found here:

    On a personal note, I think you totally misrepresent the point of my question (you took something that was a question – as indicated by the question mark – and made it a statement). So, to reiterate, I was asking “why?” as I have yet to hear a satisfactory reason why people should not be allowed to “conserve” (as in take part in the active prevention of deterioration, or, the restoration) of things “they own”.

    You should also note that in the “museum world” there actually are countless examples of people doing conservation on their own materials, often (actually – very often) causing massive damage to them, so that is not a problem that the library/archive world has a monopoly on. And yes, I too also get frustrated when working on material that has been damaged by ‘attempts’ to ‘conserve’ it. But, I don’t see how that in any way invalidates my question.

    Perhaps most notoriously archaeologists and others (including me) get very upset with the perceived/actual damage metal detectorists do to material cultural. If you re-read some of my later tweets, that come back to this question, you’ll note a particular example I gave of working to present the ‘Portable Antiquities Scheme’ (PAS) Conservation Advice Notes: to metal detectorists, that I used as an example of teaching conservation to the public.

    So, as it happens, yes, I do advocate teaching the public conservation – however as I explained in my tweets I do so with the idea that education and information should go hand in hand. I see this as a practical example of preventive conservation in action, and a practical solution to a problem that wont go away just because we’d like it to.

    In contrast I would ask you how only having bad advice and information available to the public is helping?

    Because the choice I see that otherwise left by default is:
    a) Abstinence.
    b) Following, knowingly or unknowingly, bad advice which is already out there in the public realm.

    Is that not right? What other choices?

    I would suggest that the thing that many conservators don’t want to admit, is that people WILL work on things, it is my belief then that as such we should probably assist them in doing so to the best of their abilities (in order to limit damage). In this vein there are a growing library of fabulous resources to show people how to undertake “conservation treatments” in a “better” way… such as the excellent book: Saving Stuff. (which incidentally has advice for both objects, paper, photo… and much more besides… there was also an interesting paper at the AIC Annual Meeting 2008 presented by one of its authors – Don Williams – about this book in the Wooden Artifacts Group… a brilliant paper).

    I hope that provides a little more clarity of what I was driving at in my tweets.



  2. RichardMcCoy Says:

    Interesting summary. I wonder why this blog is being written anonymosly.

    As for your point #4: What do you think of this:

  3. conservationoccasional Says:

    I could talk around the anonymity, but frankly, I am hoping to, ah, ensure some personal commitment to this blog before I tack my name onto it. In this day and age, I would prefer not to have half-baked ideas and thoughts come up in a Google search for my name. At least not yet. Fair or not, that is my current stance.

    Going to Dan’s first point, re: why people shouldn’t be allowed to conserve their own materials, my thoughts are that there is no ethical reason why an individual should not be allowed to work on their materials. In fact the owner is the person who can most accurately identify many of the needs of an object and hence how to best treat it.

    However, most owners/curators/librarians don’t possess the skills and abilities needed to conserve their materials in a fashion that “we”, ie practicing conservators, can or would support for materials in our collections. And since collecting institutions are moving to broaden their purviews to include materials that has not traditionally been collected (scrapbooks, birth records, ephemera, etc.), perhaps additional consideration should be given to how “the public” is educated as to how they should treat materials that could be viewed as residing in a pre-institutional state?

    I am fairly certain that we actually agree about the need for extensive public outreach and education. I was merely trying to demarcate a limit as to what we should be teaching the public. “Saving Stuff” is a very good example of a teaching tool that puts forth strictly defined limits of tasks that the public should undertake. Frankly, I would categorize most of the book as “preservation” rather than “conservation” (and I recognize that we may now be wallowing in the realm of semantics). If I had to summarize my stance, I would say that we need outreach to the public, but that outreach should focus on non-invasive methods of preservation; I don’t believe that we should be encouraging untrained individuals to undertake stain reductions with THF or bleaching with sodium borohydride. I don’t think that you are saying that either, but I am actually concerned that if conservators engage in communication in a publicly searchable forum, someone will Google “how do I get the stain out of my high school diploma” and then end up with an elaborate treatment from the ConsDist List and end up hurting themselves and/or their object.

    Richard, I am sorry to say here that I am currently working from a very slow internet connection and I hope to make some comments on your post tomorrow.

    All in all, I think that the Twitter-o-rama seems to have really kick started some meaningful Conservation 2.0 discussions, and I hope that we can keep them going.

  4. Suzy Says:

    “I don’t believe that we should be encouraging untrained individuals to undertake stain reductions with THF or bleaching with sodium borohydride. I don’t think that you are saying that either, but I am actually concerned that if conservators engage in communication in a publicly searchable forum, someone will Google “how do I get the stain out of my high school diploma” and then end up with an elaborate treatment from the ConsDist List and end up hurting themselves and/or their object.”

    So what’s going to change if we start talking more about treatments and methodology, etc. in public forums such as blogs or wikis? If similar info is already available via repositories like CoOL, then the “general public” already has the power to off themselves with an ill-advised home-grown treatment involving dangerous solvents. Wouldn’t it be an improvement if this same information was still available, but came with a warning or discussion about chemical safety or ethics or why such a treatment should be left to trained professionals?

    Again, I can’t stress more the importance of making (or keeping) this information accessible alongside the advocating of personal responsibility. After all, people will do stupid things regardless of one’s efforts to prevent it.

  5. Suzy, whether it comes across or not I fully agree with the need/benefit to make information publicly accessible. However, I do wonder how we can do that (or what the ethics are) without slapping twenty pages of warnings and conditional amendments to every post. That is a discussion that I would like to see take place at some point.

    If I may slip into the ever so convenient medical comparison, I can find instructions on how to remove my own appendix online, but I am unlikely to undertake that procedure unless it is a dire emergency. People seem much more willing (whether for under-appreciating the value or risks involved) to work on cultural property. Perhaps our education push should include a heavy dose of value and decision-making?

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