University of Cambridge Museums

Projects, events and news from the University of Cambridge Museums

Institute of Conservation Conference

In June, I had the lucky opportunity to attend the Institute of Conservation triennial conference in Birmingham.

The theme of the conference was conservation in the 21st century.  Birmingham seemed an appropriate city to host this conference.  From visiting a few of their museums, it is clear that industry and engineering plays a big part in the city’s story.  With this, comes a different challenge when it comes to conservation and modern times.  How do you preserve an object that is designed to move and has a function?  The temptation is to stop all moving parts and preserve ‘as is’ – but these objects were made to move and to work so how can we keep it moving while preserving it?

ThinkTank Science Museum, Birmingham

ThinkTank Science Museum, Birmingham

This issue was echoed in several different talks, including ones from modern art museums.  As conservators, we are faced with the problem of caring for the huge variety of new and different artworks, including time-based media, engineering, electronics, and plastics.  The advantage in a lot of cases of contemporary artwork is that the artist can be asked how they want their work to survive into the future (if at all!).  Nevertheless, we could be facing a need for some conservators to develop their skills.

For example, at the Fitzwilliam Museum, the history of the objects span hundreds of years with different materials, functions and stories.  We need to ensure that we are preserving the craft skills to take care of our older objects while looking into the future and how we can care for contemporary and future artworks.

Conservation practice is also at a time when digital technology can help us greatly in our role.  We can take numerous photographs and scans, use analytical equipment to find out about the materials used in an object, as well as use digital technology to engage audiences in a completely different way.

It wasn’t all about new technology – there were a wide variety of talks covering subjects like mould, lighting, and documentation.  This conference was a great way to hear about the successes and challenges other museums and conservators have faced and an opportunity to discuss the problems we still haven’t quite solved yet!

The key message that I took away from this conference was the need to work with colleagues outside of the conservation sector.  This could include engineers, photographers, IT specialists, visitor engagement teams, and curators.  Often, they have already solved the problems conservators are facing (such as how to store thousands of hi-res photos!).  With a collaborative effort, we can improve our knowledge and skills, and yet still keep the objects and stories at the core of the work we do.

Helena Rodwell, Assistant Conservator, The Fitzwilliam Museum

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