“Contexts for Conservation” Review

In 2013, the AICCM National Conference was held at the Science Exchange in Adelaide. The conference papers presented at the conference entitled “Contexts for Change” touched on several main themes including:

  • Ethics, values and prioritising treatments
  • Occupational health, safe conservation practice and solutions
  • International standards for environmental monitoring
  • Audio visual and digital media conservation
  • 3-D scanning, conservation technology and techniques
  • Conservation salvage: materials and techniques
  • Analytical techniques, surveys and treatments
  • The future of conservation
  • Ghosts of the past

The keynote address by Sarah Staniforth, Museums and Collections Director from the National Trust of England and Northern Ireland asked the question “Are all objects equal”? Looking at current practices in Australia, England, Europe and Japan relating to significance, fragility, workmanship, value and use including the Burra Charter, the Monuments Act 1913 and Waverley criteria, she raised the issue that there is no standardised worldwide system of significance or environmental monitoring standard. The implications of climate change on these standards and the economics related to environmentally controlled conditions particularly in relation to heritage conservation and care of collections in museums and galleries, has led to a review of environmental monitoring standards by the American Institute for Conservation (AIC) the BISO group and PAS 198. This overview of global debate on the issue was provided by Julien Bickersmith in his paper “What should be our set point levels? The complex question of environmental conditions in museums”. For conservators, the main risk related to loans and exhibitions crossing borders, hemispheres and between climatic zones and bespoke solutions for significant objects.

Audio visual, photographic and digital media collections pose new challenges for conservators and collectors. Shingo Ishikawa and Mick Newnham from the National Film and Sound Archives in their paper “Filling the Niche: Supporting the preservation of audio-visual collections in south-east Asia and the Pacific Region” described two methodologies to reduce the effects of acidic off-gassing from film canisters including cyclic maintenance and improved canister design with improved ventilation slits to reduce damage to films caused by chemical degradation. Amalia Alpareanu, a conservator from the State library of South Australia and Alex Bishop Thorpe from the Analogue lab gained a better understanding of the technology used to produce glass plate negatives by reproducing the process in order to undertake an emulsion transfer to conserve a glass plate negative image. Photographic grade 2 % gelatine (250 bloom) produced better results than food grade gelatine. Between 1872 and 1908, photographers from competing South Australian photographic studios produced portrait mosaics of early colonialists from which the subjects could order their individual portraits. The digitisation project to conserve individual portraits was expanded to include portrait mosaic posters because of their holistic significance to South Australian social history. Beth Robertson, Preservation Manager at the State library of South Australia commissioned the Art Lab and the National Library of Australia to conserve and digitise the posters as explained in the joint paper with Peter Mitchelson from the NLA entitled “Caught in Time: Preserving South Australia’s Old Colonists for a digital future. Two papers, the first entitled “Plenetary: Collecting and preserving code as a living object” by Seb Chan, Directer of Digital and Emerging Media and Aaron  Cope, Senior Engineer at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum  and the second, entitled Collecting and Conserving Code: Challenges and Strategies” by Melanie Swalwell, Associate Professor in Screen and media, at Flinders’ University stressed the “uniqueness” of a design object, or motive and the play or interactive experience associated with collecting computer based media. Stallwell reflected from conversations with participants that the necessary transfer of media to more durable media because of playing equipment becoming unplayable could result in a diminished experience.

New technologies including 3-D laser scanners, and data visualisation are changing the ways conservators replicate, store and improve information access. Colin MacGregor discussed how the Australian Museum is using 3-D scanners for digital repatriation, virtual loans, fieldwork to replicate engravings and components of objects for display. The disadvantages, including intensive labour and large file  formats outweighed the advantages including risk management and improved access to the collection. Identification, interpretation and retrieval are the major advantages of “Data visualisation: A new tool for conservation” used at the National Archives of Australia presented in Peter Shaw’s paper. This tool compresses information into bitmaps and associated groups to priortise treatments.

Two papers stressed the importance of conservator health and well-being associated with furniture design and fumigation treatments. In “Table talk: The development of modified work tables to reduce the risk of work related musculoskeletal disorders from conservation treatments”, a paper by Kristen Phillips from Art Lab SA, highlighted ways to improve posture and reduce injuries by adjusting the height and depth of tables and seats or angling seat and table gradients. The use of split tables makes access to the inner and external perimeter of large picture frames easier, while hinged tables are adaptable and reduce the size of tables during transit and storage. A survey by a team led by Dr Rosemary Goodall, “Profiling hazardous substances in the Museum of Victoria State Collection” over 50 year intervals from 1850 to the present using a hand-held x-ray fluorescence spectrometer, has led to a review of risk management strategies and the development of safe handling procedures for objects treated using methyl bromide (25-30 ppm), mercury (20-25 ppm), lead and arsenic based fumigants. Arsenic and mercury residues posed a higher risk for handlers of objects constructed using animal skins, furs, feathers and glass beads.

Other treatments and surveys included a paper entitled “Fields of Colour: the conservation of mat synthetic paintings by Michael Johnson” researched and presented by Celine de Courlon, Contemporary Art Fellow and co-authored by paintings conservator Simon Ives and Paula Dredge all at the AGNSW. Preceded by artists interviews to determine artistic intent and pigment analysis using Fourier Transform Infra Red (FTIR) and X-ray fluorescence techniques, this treatment documents subtle in-painting techniques using Aquasol 500 to restore abraded or damaged areas. A survey of watermarks by Kate Hughes at the State library of NSW, involved tracing or using transmitted light photography to form a reference database based on the Derby Collection of botanical fauna  and flora works of art on paper housed at the State library. Variations on the John Watmin watermark dominate those found on wove and laid paper stock.  “Garling Conservator Project 2013: Documenting and treating the TAL and Dai-ichi life derby collection of natural history water colours” represents the start of a process to cross reference paper stock and facilitate treatments. The title of the paper, “Treating a century old silk painting” presented  by Alex McNaught-Reynolds co-authored by Victoria Gill, understates the significance of painting by Marion Mahoney Griffin

Time travellers or ghosts of the past made an appearance on the last day of the conference with a visit from Lord Canarvon and his daughter swept in by the sands of time to illustrate a public programme run by Artlab to introduce students to the concepts of conservation and Egyptian mummification. This paper “The Wrap on Mummies; Using the story of Tutenkhamen to introduce conservation science to children” starred Kristan Phillips (Conservator of the year) and Justin Gare developed by Chris Nobbs (Education Manager, working at the South Australian Museum.

The future of the conservation profession.