Conservator on Conference: ICOM-CC 17th Triennial Conference in Melbourne

“Building Strong Culture through Conservation", the theme of this year’s ICOM-CC conference, sounds worthy but how is it actually put into action? Over 650 conservators from around the world heard presentations from colleagues on how this is happening many ways.

Sometimes these have roundabout routes and unexpected outcomes; a research project to identify collagen based materials in the Peabody Museum collections led to members of the Alutiiq community in Alaska to identify a rare kayak there. This not only led to the conservation of this and three other kayaks, but also the identification of more Alutiiq material on subsequent community member visits and many Skype conversations so that museum staff could learn from the community about the fabrication and care of this material. The community was able to study these objects, revitalising skills and strengthening the roles of the keepers of tradition and giving the confidence to teach a new generation of young Alutiiq to learn to create kayaks and other traditional objects, which was done with evident pride.

Close collaboration between conservators and community was illustrated when a group of Portuguese conservators were asked to conserve wall paintings in a parish church and remove disastrous but well-intentioned "restorations". The conservation work was done in the functioning parish church and parishioners were free to go in and see the conservators at work as they wished. The conservators worked closely with the parish priest so that the community was kept informed through the parish newsletter and lectures within the church. Discussions allowed the parishioners to understand the ethics informing the conservation and the reasoning for what was done (and not done), while the conservators got to hear the unmediated opinions of parishioners, including two of ladies who preferred the ungainly "restoration" because it was complete. These interactions help give an understanding of what is important to the different parties involved.

Of particular interest to Australia, are projects for conservators to learn bark painting techniques on country and to understand community attitudes to conservation. Another project identifies binding media and pigments used in paints for early bark paintings. Documentary records on what materials were used are often vague, and to date, no significant chemical analysis has been carried out. Many Australian institutions have contributed samples from paintings in their collections, including the Macleay Museum (ETP.992, and ETP.995, pictured here, are just two of the Macleay Museum's collection items involved in this project). The investigators also visited communities to learn traditional knowledge directly from artists and plan to return to present what they have learned. While ongoing, this project has revealed that our documentary knowledge was not comprehensive, a wider range of materials than originally thought were used, and that material thought to be limited to one area was more widely used.