Very exciting news out of New Haven:

Yale University President Richard C. Levin today announced the creation of the Yale Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, funded by a gift of $25 million from Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin ’78. The Institute, to be housed on Yale’s West Campus, will unite the vast resources of the University’s museum and library collections with the scientific and technological expertise of Yale’s academic departments to advance conservation science and its practice around the world.

“This extraordinary gift enables a breakthrough in the global practice of conservation and preservation,” Levin said. “Through their philanthropy, Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin have already established themselves among the world’s foremost custodians of cultural resources. I am deeply grateful that their support will allow Yale to combine the resources of its three museums and its library to develop new approaches to conservation and to engage in new international collaborations in research and education…”

The work of the Institute will be supported by two core facilities in conservation and digitization: The conservation core will provide specialized research tools and focus on new technologies and methods to reduce threats common to many objects. The digitization core will apply new technological tools to capture, store, curate, and share material in digital form. As it works to meet these basic goals, the Institute will pioneer areas of research and analytical techniques that are at present unknown to the world of conservation.

On top of the Mellon funding of library and archive conservation training, this new research institute could offer a very exciting addition to the development of the field.


There has already been great coverage of the proceedings at this year’s Library and Collections Conservation Discussion Group in Philadelphia by Jeff Peachey on the newly revamped AIC Blog, Beth Doyle at PCAN, and Suzy at Digital Cellulose.  So might I ask you to click through for the background and notes on the meeting while I dive right in on my thoughts and concerns.

First the good news:

  1. I am not concerned that there will not be enough book conservation graduates from the three pilot programs. Despite the fact that graduate students at the three American art conservation programs are not locked into maintaining their interest in book conservation, I suspect that there are substantial financial and enough prestige incentives to “encourage” the programs to find ways to graduate book specialists.
  2. I am not worried about the quality of the conservators that will be trained: they will be excellent. The programs have long proven that they can produce students of outstanding quality. No training regime is perfect. And the curriculum will evolve as the programs see how their students are progressing.
  3. I am not bothered that they will not receive MLS degrees as part of their formal training. Some jobs will require MLS degrees, but I suspect that number will shrink with time and the new graduates will have the opportunity (and yes added time and financial burden) to earn additional qualifications if they find that they need them.
  4. I strongly suspect that the students will have superior technical and analytical research training than many of my fellow Kilgarlin graduates.  It was a strategic short-coming of our program, but I have high hopes for the papers that the new graduates will be presenting at AIC in 5-7 years times.

Now for the…concerns. (Worries might be too critical a word.) My hope is that perhaps there is just a linguistic obstacle that perhaps the programs haven’t been able to hurdle yet in explaining their curriculum in the various forums in which I have heard them, but if not then:

  1. First and foremost, I question whether the curricula will focus too much on preparing the students for the “super” special collections’ work of illuminated manuscripts and incunables.  The Morgan and the Huntington may find themselves flush with qualified applicants (for entry level positions?), but far more collections are more…modest in scope and even more modest in the range of materials that will be treated.  It is not just that we need conservators with the ability to tackle these projects, but we need to graduate conservators who want to go and work at these more modest institutions.
  2. Judy Walsh said that the graduate coursework was like getting a “learner’s permit.” Now I am not always one for metaphors, but to follow this one, I would say that new graduates need to be closer to their trucker’s licenses than learner’s permits. There simply aren’t enough post-graduate fellowships to build up skills that should be learned while in school. Graduates need to be ready to be the only conservation (and maybe preservation presence) at a small institution with big problems.
  3. Will admissions criteria be broadened to include more coursework and pre-program experiences that would be relevant to library conservators?
  4. How will the programs integrate the essential emphasis on treatment speed and efficiency necessary for most library work without compromising the training approaches of the other specialties?

All this said, I am very excited to see these pilot programs in action.  Or in graduates.  I don’t doubt that there will be weakness in the curricula (as there are everywhere), and they will evolve to better provide the skills that the programs and the field believe are needed.

Or not. My apologies, but I will need one more day to pull together some initial thoughts on this year’s AIC and the important LCCDG education panel.


May 18, 2010

I for one am still recovering from a very busy and engaging AIC Annual Meeting in Milwaukee, so hopefully I will be able to string together some more in depth thoughts as the week goes on.  For now, I want to thank everyone who tweeted from the conference to share information on all the great talks that we couldn’t attend!  I think we have almost 150 tweets with the hashtag #AICWI.

A few of interest:

striegelm Wheeler dicussed theory of conservation, emphasized differeces between us & physical object. Focus on material, history, …#aicwi

#aicwi Smith shows ways that cons program changed to be flexible and relevant to NYPL in it’s own change. Be flexible & change with it.

Weinstraub says over time we moved from common sense guidelines to prescriptive specifications.

rosedaly Coffee in the exhibit hall=dangerous, I am caffinated and then want to buy some analytical equipment, will someone give me $300,000? #AICWI

diplomatics lib&archive group #aicwi -> is MLS nec? (depends) and what about training? (Mellon rep attanded to listen & museum cons progs with interest)

conservators eeewwwww let’s follow @vstpgh to get ready for AIC’s 2011 mtng, #aicpgh

The fruit trees are starting to blossom, and the internet has been busy.

And for your viewing pleasure:

When I think about the intangibles of a conservation treatment, I generally consider the decision-making process: why one treatment strategy over another or what aspects of the object were given priority for preservation and what was determined to be expendable.  Unsurprisingly perhaps, various approaches seem to come in and out of fashion as the philosophy of the field emerges, from traditional restoration to phased conservation to minimal intervention to digitization-driven projects.  In the lab, these changes frequently surface when treatments need to be revisited when the fail or during exhibition preparations.  In the literature, it an sometimes be quite striking to reflect back upon the “best” treatments of a previous era.

H.J. Plenderleith was the Director of the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property and Keeper of the Research Laboratory of the British Museum when he published The Conservation of Antiquities and Works of Art: Treatment, Repair, and Restoration in 1956.  This handbook was intended to serve as a primary reference source for the care and treatment of arts and objects, although not a training manual or instruction guide.  However, reading through it today (and in this case reading the second edition of 1971), it is striking to see how much the basic approaches have changed, (at least in regards to books and manuscripts, I am not sure that I wish to speak for other specialties).  In part, these changes have to do with a fuller understanding of the impact of chemicals upon materials and an improvement in materials and equipment: Plenderleith is a serious proponent of utilizing DDT and thymol to control pests and mold.  To repair tears in paper, he suggests applying “one such reasonably permanent self-adhesive tape…Magic Tape 810,” aka Scotch Tape.  (Remember, Tape is Evil)  Other methods are simply questionable, such as removing a bound leaf by inserting a wet string into the gutter and closing the volume for a few minutes before tearing the leaf out.

Overall, revisiting this text with more professional experience under my belt, I was struck not so much by the fact that methods have changed, but rather how they have changed.  Penderleith seems to fully embrace the post-war enthusiasm for science, technology, and progress in all treatments.  If there was a chemical that could do the job, it should be applied forthwith.  In some ways, I feel as if the field of conservation has walked back from this full-throated embrace of “progress” to an approach that better balances traditional craft approaches with new materials and equipment.  (Here, I am thinking of encapsulation rather than lamination or silking as a method that doesn’t physically alter the individual object* and board-slotting as a means to reconstruct case-bindings as a alternative to traditional re-backing.) I am not sure if this change is an indication that the field has lost some of its enduring confidence or whether it is tied into post-modern notions of ownership and cultural colonialism or whether it is simply progress in its purest form, but the philosophy of minimal intervention does not seem to have any serious challengers at the moment, although perhaps one could make the argument that the creation of digital objects will impact how we value the physical object in collections?

*Which is not so say that encapsulation of multi-leaf items such as scrapbooks does not significantly change how a volume is “read” and read, only that it does not physically affect the paper surface, even though it influences how the user interacts with it.

Adam Godjin has an insightful post up at Sustaining Your Heritage on treating a painting for damage caused by an earlier intervention.  Putting aside the discussion of the treatment itself, he really gets at the keys to the conservators approach:

As conservators we think a lot about how we are going to treat an object. Often, it seems to us that conservation can be more about knowing what we cannot do rather than what we can. It is very easy to re-touch that missing section of paint, or glue a sculpture back together, but what are the consequences of our actions? In essence, this is what our training and code of ethics are all about – how do we treat the problems with an artwork or artefact whilst maintaining its significance and authenticity, and causing no harm to it now or in the future.

As a man with authority and a silver tongue once said, “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. These are things we do not know we don’t know.”  One of the key missions of the conservator is to minimize the unknown unknowns so that informed treatment decisions can be undertaken.