Attending the Icon Conference 2016: Scotland Tour

This week’s blog comes from Holly Sanderson, Conservation Volunteer at the Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh, and aspiring book and paper conservator. It describes her experience of going to Icon Scotland’s most recent event in Edinburgh…

I am writing this blog shortly after attending my first conservation conference (of many, I’m sure!). Due to popular demand, the Scotland Group and the Care of Collections group hosted a one-day event in which they returned to some of the key themes and presentations of last year’s Icon Conference in Birmingham. It proved to be a stimulating day full of interesting and informative talks that provoked many questions about how a collaborative and multidisciplinary approach can enhance and improve not only individual treatment strategies, but the field of conservation as a whole.

Question and answer panel session

Question and answer panel session

The conference opened with a paper from Emily Hick, Special Collections Conservator at the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Research Collections, drawing from her experience organising a two-day crowdsourced conservation event, the first of its kind to occur at the CRC. Emily spoke about the benefits of such an event, including wider public engagement and a reduction in project hours, and also advised on some of the potential challenges, such as security and ethics. For me, as a student and not yet a professional, I found it particularly interesting to see ‘behind the curtain’ and realise how many extra considerations and additional time goes into the successful organisation of such an event.

Next, Claire Thomson, Book and Paper Conservator at the National Library of Scotland spoke about the conservation of the ‘Chimney Map’, a rare 17th Century map found in Aberdeen that arrived at the library stuffed inside a plastic bag. Claire has spoken often on the detailed process of conserving the map, and so took this opportunity to instead focus upon the media aspect of the story, in particular the short film produced by Trina McKendrick and Kev Theaker, which followed the treatment process through to its completion and generated a huge amount of media attention across the globe.

The final talk for this session came from Lizzie Miller, Object Conservator at Birmingham Museums Trust. Lizzie spoke about the difficulties of keeping up with contemporary collecting, in particular how conservators are finding it necessary to adapt their methods in order to work with complex modern artworks. Lizzie stressed the importance of building a good relationship with the artist, the absolute necessity of detailed documentation (especially when the artwork in question consists of over 700 individual items!), and of a willingness to collaborate with external experts. Again, some interesting questions were raised here concerning ethics, especially regarding how one interprets and honours the artist’s original intent while remaining conscious of the preservation needs of such rare and unstable materials.

Slide from presentation by Lizzie Miller, Birmingham Museums Trust

Slide from presentation by Lizzie Miller, Birmingham Museums Trust

After a short break (and some truly excellent cake!) the second panel began with Dr Cordelia Rogerson, Head of Conservation at the British Library, discussing the unexpected benefits of risk assessments. This paper, co-authored with Dr Paul Garde, offered brilliant practical insights into how to effectively collaborate and engage with other institutional departments, and how such assessments can offer a way in which to present risks to an object or collection in a logical, impartial, and unambiguous manner, thus allowing concerns held by conservators to be readily explained to other stakeholders.

Slide from presentation by Cordelia Rogerson British Library

Slide from presentation by Cordelia Rogerson, British Library

Sarah VanSnick, Senior Conservation Manager at the National Archives, then spoke about the challenge of tackling a mould outbreak as a multidisciplinary team. The National Archives have recently reviewed their treatment plan, and this talk took us through the main points, including the reorganisation of a treatment space and the running of experiments to gauge the risk of reinfection of the collections, or any risk posed to the health of those coming into contact with it.

In the final paper of the morning, Dr Isobel Griffin, Collections Care Manager at the National Library of Scotland, discussed the pros and cons of collections environment standards, debating whether documents such as PAS 198 and PD 5454 are informative and useful, or vague and potentially obstructive. It seemed difficult to gauge the balance of this discussion, there being both reasonable positives and negatives to the implication of these standards. However, as was stressed, the importance of transparent communication when it comes to collections loans policies and conversations about museum environments remained clear.

After lunch, and the final panel began with a paper from Helen Murdina Hughes, Textile Conservator at Glasgow Life, detailing an interdisciplinary project that saw the conservation, documentation, and inventory of a collection of union and community banners held by Glasgow Museums. The project became an invaluable opportunity for cross-disciplinary working, with conservators, photographers and students working in collaboration throughout the project. Helen ended her talk with a fascinating time-lapse video that showed just how laborious a process it was to unroll, document, and re-roll each banner.

Slide from presentation by Helen Hughes, Glasgow Life

Slide from presentation by Helen Hughes, Glasgow Life

Next, Richard Welander, Head of Collections at Historic Environment Scotland, delivered Lyndsey Haworth’s paper on strain monitoring of tapestries. Lyndsey, Regional Collections Manager at HES, was unfortunately unable to attend the conference, but her paper delivered a fascinating look at how the physical structure of a tapestry, specifically the strain upon certain areas when hung, will have an eventual effect upon its decay. By capturing high quality time-lapsed images of the newly completed Mystic Hunt of the Unicorn tapestry from Stirling Castle, and then feeding these images through a software program, the project created ‘strain maps’ which highlighted areas where deformation had taken place.

Next, and Sarah Foskett, Lecturer on the MPhil in Textile Conservation at University of Glasgow, demonstrated how a collaborative effort between conservation students, conservation professionals, and museums and institutions proved valuable for all parties.  Conservation students at the University of Glasgow joined forces with Glasgow Museums to undertake environmental monitoring of the Century of Style exhibition at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, providing the students with invaluable and transferable ‘real-world’ experience, and the museum with useful and informative data that can be referred to when planning future exhibitions.

Slide from presentation by Sarah Foskett, University of Glasgow

Slide from presentation by Sarah Foskett, University of Glasgow

The day closed with a fascinating look at the complex nature of the preservation of Polaroid prints. Ioannis Vasallos, Photographic Collections Conservator at the National Library of Scotland, discussed the treatment undertaken to ensure the preservation of three continuity albums from the Stanley Kubrick Archive, used during the filming of The Shining. Research was undertaken to determine the cause of fading in many prints from these albums, and both the materials of the photographs and the albums were examined. The study and the identification of the prints assisted the decision-making process for subsequent treatments, thus ensuring their long-term preservation and accessibility.

Slide from presentation by Ioannis Vasallos, National Library of Scotland

Slide from presentation by Ioannis Vasallos, National Library of Scotland

Attending the Icon Conference: Scotland Tour has strengthened my desire to work in conservation, as well as my awareness of the financial, logistical, and ethical concerns that must be considered when proposing or undertaking any project. As a student hoping to embark upon a professional career in the conservation of book and library materials, the ideas presented throughout the day not only gave me a more nuanced view of this field, but also provoked questions that will stay with me as I progress in my career. I was particularly struck by the importance of remaining receptive and open to cross-sector collaboration; in an age of specialization, interdisciplinary endeavours are now vital to a comprehensive understanding, not only in conservation or the cultural heritage sector, but also across academia, industry, and science.

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