Conservation Conferences: Looking forward to new challenges – Part 1 – ICON19!

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by Karen Thompson, Lecturer, MPhil Textile Conservation.

June 2019 provided professional colleagues, including staff, graduates, and current students of the Centre for Textile and the former Textile Conservation Centre with the opportunity to attend two conservation focused conferences: Icon19 (Institute of Conservation, 2019 Triennial Conference) in Belfast and ICOM-CC (International Council of Museums, Committee for Conservation) textiles Working Group Interim Meeting 2019 hosted by the Abegg Stiftung in Bern, Switzerland. Two such contrasting locations: an industrial city with a complex political past and a rural museum and conservation studio nestled in the Swiss hills offered commonality in the breadth and variety of the talks, engagement and energy of the delegates, and very warm welcomes.  Part 1 reviews the Icon19 conference and Part 2 reviews ICOM-CC Textile Working Group, 2019.

Icon19 was Icon’s triennial international conference – New Perspectives: Contemporary Conservation Thinking and Practice . The triennial conference provides the opportunity for conservators of all disciplines to get together to consider broader conservation issues as well as to have the chance to engage in discipline specific talks. Former triennial conferences had been held in Cardiff, Glasgow, Birmingham and this year it was in Belfast.

The conference started with an opportunity to get to know the City.  Delegates were offered walking tours and visits to museums such National Museums Northern Ireland (NMNI) and historic houses including Mount Stewart and Hillsborough Castle. Other events also took place across the two days. It was a great city to walk around.  One striking highlight was the opportunity to see the painted street murals that feature across the city which depict many political and contemporary themes. 

A metaphor on the conflict in Northern Ireland

The conference was officially opened with a reception at Ulster Museum.  We received a warm welcome and the reception provided an opportunity to visit the museum for those that hadn’t had the chance to see it.  Highlights of the museum for me included a Games of Thrones ‘tapestry’ – woven cloth made of a shaft loom and with embroidered detail. For someone who has not watched the series I have now got a sense of the story! Fabulous wicker dragons hung from the ceiling of the museum and an exhibition of female artists from the 1930s were just some of the other interesting current displays. The ‘Troubles’ gallery housed an exhibition called ‘The Troubles and beyond’, highlighting the role of museums in interpreting the complex history of conflict in Northern Ireland and is well worth visiting.    

Delegates at the opening reception
Rebecca Bissonnet, Hannah Sutherland, Caitlyn Picard and Maria Jordan – enjoying getting together at the reception

The conference talks took place over two days.  There was a wide range of speakers from many different areas of conservation and heritage organisations. Some notable themes emerged:

New materials, sustainability and climate change:  At the start of the conference Sandra Smith, British Museum talked about the new challenges and opportunities facing conservators having to learn about the conservation of new materials such as shoes made from genetically modified bacteria that can be dissolved using enzymes. Fibre identification and cleaning take on new dimensions!   At the close of the conference, Dr Meredith, Wiggins, Senior Environmental Analyst at Historic England highlighted the planning and work Historic England are doing to prepare for climate change.  There was also a group session on sustainable thinking.

Conservation on a grand scale: A number of talks presented the challenges of conservation projects involving ships.  From the Mary Rose (Dr Eleanor Schofield – Where the arts meet science: Keeping the Mary Rose ship-shape!) to SS Great Britain (The Engineering Past, and Future, of Brunel’s SS Great Britain by Nicola Grahamslaw).  It was interesting to learn more about the role engineers in developing conservation strategies.

Cleaning challenges: Bronwyn Ormsby presented her paper ‘Approaches to cleaning modern and contemporary art collaborations, methodologies and novel materials’  Bronwyn discussed cleaning of two modern oil sensitive modern paintings – Whamm by Roy Lichtenstein and Addendum by Eva Hesse.  This included the use of new commercial gels – Nanorestore Peggy® which may have potential for cleaning textiles.

Morwena Stephens and Karen Thompson debating hot topics

Employment featured in a number of talks exploring work opportunities for new and well-established conservators and the continued practice of short-term contracts. Whilst many of the challenges of short-term contracts are not new to the conservation profession and are the feature of many jobs and professions today, it is important that these issues continue to be discussed and highlighted. On a positive note, Dr Cordelia Rogerson, Head of Conservation at the British Library, presented a talk explaining the role of the internship programme and how it has evolved at the BL which continues to be an important and exciting development.

Diversity and inclusion in conservation was a theme that emerged in both the group sessions and the plenary.  Whilst diversity in terms of the international profile of conservation is evident, questions were raised about the diversity in terms of social groups and gender balance and also in the way we engage with the public.  This is a theme that emerged at the ICOM-CC conference in Switzerland.

There were some thought provoking and inspiring talks in particular the work of Richard Mulholland and Elsa Guerreiro helping in the preservation of artworks in Afghanistan.  (Conservation in a Conflict Zone: Assessing War-Damaged Paintings at the National Gallery of Afghanistan).

It was really exciting to see was the number of papers from emerging conservators. One example, was a talk that presented the thinking behind the ‘C’ word podcast which has been developed by a small team of conservators (hosted by Jenny Mathiasson, Kloe Rumsey, and Christina Rozeik) which includes the first belly dancing conservator! There’s an episode about the conference too.

It was great to see so many familiar faces and meet new colleagues during the conference. There was an excellent representation from TCC/CTC staff, graduates and students at the conference. In fact all the papers in the textile group sessions presented by TCC/CTC staff, graduates and students.

Rosa Costantini, presenting with Professor Frances Lennard, their paper ‘Taking the Strain: Using Digital Image Correlation to monitor strain in tapestries displayed on slanted supports’
Caitlyn Picard and Laura Garcia Vedrenne after presenting their papers

The main take away message from the conference came through from the visit to the city, its museums and the talks.  It was encapsulated in the opening talk by Paul Mullan, Director of Northern Ireland Heritage Lottery Fund who discussed the power of memory and meaning and the multiple narrative we can tell and interpret from the past. Ulster museum talks about ‘same history but different memories’ when referring the Troubles on the island of Ireland in its new display. In Jane Henderson’s talk ‘Who do we exclude when we keep things for the future?’ she explored what unconscious bias we bring to our collections and treatments. This resonated with us when thinking about the objects we conserve and preserve, how the same objects will have different meanings and provide different experiences for all of us, and the role of conservators in creating and interpreting meaning.

We look forward to looking forward to Icon22!

I would like to thank the Clothworkers’ Foundation and The University of Glasgow for their funding that enabled me to attend this conference.

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