For the past two weeks I have shifted my working-from-home to my native Finland, where I have been experiencing quarantine existence prior to being able to take some time off and see family and friends – within the restrictions in place here, mind. As I mentioned in my previous post, since March I have taken part in a variety of online lectures and events in connection with the conservation profession – including a good handful during these past two weeks. They have prompted me to thinking about the shifting role of the Conservator in the 21st century – so I thought I would type down some of these musings with the hope that they might spark food for thought to others!
Conservation has always been a very ‘live’ profession – techniques and approaches have changed a huge amount even since the 1980s, and keeping on top of the latest is a very active role. My path into the world of (paper) conservation didn’t start until 2010 and I came into it from an archive digitisation role, having started work at the Design Archives in 2002. A deep understanding and expertise of the role of the conservator, collection care, preservation and archival digitisation processes have definitely placed me in a very interesting, and in some ways privileged, spot at a cross-roads between these different aspects of the field. As with other professions during COVID-19, conservation and preservation professionals have had to adapt to new ways of working, bringing to the fore many innovative ideas and approaches. This has also resulted in borders between areas of responsibility blurring around the profession – not necessarily always a welcomed phenomenon. The importance of collaboration and openness about all the challenges (and successes!) we have experienced – this year in particular – are very clear, and it has been very positive to notice that this has been a running theme in the online events I have attended since March.
I have been particularly interested in cross-overs and collaborations between the areas of digitisation and conservation, because of my position of wearing both of these hats in my professional role. During the COVID-19 times we live in, both bench work and digitisation of materials came to an unnatural halt for many as institutions and archives closed their doors. While places have tentatively started opening up again in the past few months, access issues and safety concerns still exist for many, and will possibly continue to do so for many months to come.
Last week a friend and conservation colleague Emma Skinner did an online talk and Q&A about her Conservation for Digitisation internship experience. Conservation for digitisation is an accelerating field of the profession as demand for digitised items from archives increases. In the Design Archives we are in a perhaps more unique position where the vast majority of our collections are from the 20th Century. This means that digitisation of materials doesn’t necessarily provide major conservation challenges and considerations (such as rolled up parchments or ‘oversized’ pieces), but certainly doesn’t come without its challenges either! The Design Archives have been at the forefront of many innovative digitisation projects since the early 2000’s and we very much hope to continue on this path. As technology, such as 3D imaging, becomes more and more ‘everyday’, it will be fascinating to see what the Digitisation Conservator field will come up against in the coming years. The two areas of work are certainly going to need to head forward very much hand in hand.
Naturally all this talk about digitisation and its possibilities for ease of access is very exciting, but we must not forget about those that digital technology and its advances alienates. The lack of inclusivity can very quickly become an issue as we, as a world I guess, move deeper into the digital age. Talks about 3D exhibitions and other non-traditional methods of exhibiting fill me with joy and dread at the same time, and we will have to be mindful of finding a balance between the ‘new and exciting’ and the ‘old and traditional’. I guess all the advances will ultimately take us back to the question which initially prompted me to study conservation: what about ‘the stuff’? Because nothing beats ‘the stuff’! So I feel that the importance of the conservator’s role can never be underestimated – be it a more ‘traditional’ Conservator or a Digitisation Conservator.
To finish on a light note, here is an image I found in the depths of the internet. I’m sorry I can’t credit the maker or the photographer, but I’m hoping you might appreciate as much as I did when I came across it! Good ole pencils, eh?