Soft skills in preventive conservation: IIC’s 2018 Turin Congress

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By Marina Herriges, first year student, MPhil Textile Conservation.

Conservation is a field which requires constant study and reading in order to build a strong foundation as a good professional. To achieve that, international events seem to be a place where professionals and students meet to discuss new trends and share their thoughts. This was my main objective when I applied to participate in the 27th biennial IIC Congress, Preventive Conservation: ‘The State of the Art’, in Turin (Italy) in September 2018.  This congress drew my attention as it could contribute not only to my understanding of the decision-making processes of a textile conservation professional but also in further activities that I could be involved with to improve the long-term preservation of objects as a whole.

Of course, the congress had some very interesting talks concerning textile conservation such as the decision-making process regarding tapestry conservation and its environmental exposure at the Hampton Court Palace`s Great Hall or the “Operation Clothes Moth” that expressed public engagement as a fundamental instrument for the preventive conservation of the UK textile heritage. However, what made the most impression on me were some of the other discussions that took place which I thought were very insightful for me as a student and which I believe will contribute to my future as a conservator of textile objects.

One of the subjects discussed extensively was communication as an indispensable tool within various aspects of conservation. One aspect was communication through documentation and how it documentation needs to be a record for keeping data for further work, but also to be understood by others who need to access the information but that are not necessarily conservators. Another interesting point was made by Professor Joelle D.J. Wickens from the University of Delaware (USA). She discussed the importance of how we communicate our work as conservators inside an institution in relation to multidisciplinary teams and highlighted  the need to increase our ability to listen and speak to professionals that don’t understand our jargon and provide appropriate information about what we have done. Communication with museum visitors was debated as a powerful tool in connecting a community to its heritage and enhancing the sense of ownership and preservation. Soft skills such as leadership, flexibility, confidence, empathy and critical thinking were also emphasised as important abilities to be developed by emerging conservators.

The congress was also an excellent opportunity to speak with professionals from all over the world, to discuss common points which were addressed in different ways due to the specific contexts, climates or politics. Exchanging experiences and knowledge (and sometimes insecurities) made me feel I was inside a professional community in which we could discuss and share our thoughts to improve our decision-making processes as well as personal issues.

The opening ceremony © Marina Herriges, 2018.

On various days the dialogue centred around the changing demands and perceptions of the profession with a substantial debate about ‘old school’ thoughts and definitions.  Museum professionals and institutions are more and more aware of the importance of preventive conservation and the value of this subject is increasing within organisations. Sustainability and green actions, another very present topic, are in demand now and consequently preventive conservation needs to work in this direction.

Participating in the 2018 IIC Congress made me reflect more broadly on our responsibility to objects and the communities they belong to as well as the objectives of preventive conservation. I enjoyed this opportunity very much as it was a great chance to hear from a wide range of professionals (also some well-known conservators like Stefan Michalski and Gael de Guichen). As a student and emerging professional, I would recommend this experience to every scholar as a chance to rethink values and concepts and definitely learn from and get in touch with experienced conservators. I would like to thank the Bromelle Memorial Fund for allowing me to attend this conference and I look forward to the next IIC 2020 Conference in New Delhi.

Stefan Michalski giving The Forbes Prize Lecture © Marina Herriges, 2018.

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