Friday, 4 November 2016




Hello again! So last time I made some fun conservation do it yourself interactive PDFs that were hopefully useful to you guys! But this time I'm going to change it up a bit. Also, I'm fairly certain my brain can only handle about 1 chart post a semester.

This week I'm taking the view of a conservator at an institution and looking at the issue of: opening conservation to the public.

Normally, conservation takes place behind intimidating shadowy doors. It is something rarely viewed. The question is: with museums recognizing the need of involving our communities more and more in the work that we do, is conservation one of those things that should be included in opening up to the public?

CHANGING PRACTICES: Community Ownership and Museum Relevance

It is becoming more and more common to "educate" the public on conservation but that is very different than actually involving people in the process. Museum staff are constantly brainstorming on how to keep their institutions relevant and increasing the feeling of ownership and investment from their communities into the museum; this is an important feeling to encourage because the passion of the people is what makes a museum function!

Thinking of this only in terms of exhibits, education programs, talks, and singular events that are designated ~public space~ or ~public learning~ can be limiting. I think it's about time for museums to get to the nitty gritty of what they conserve and why they do and how people can help.


Good question! It should not surprise archaeologists, conservationists, (art) historians, museum workers, etc. that our visitors like seeing the objects. They like the idea of them being real, of seeing them from all angles, of them having stories and histories. The curiosity for artifacts or art is not something unique. We should LOVE that lots of people LOVE it! We should be excited that people want to know more about how it got to the display case!

Imagine: wouldn't it be cool to see conservation or rebuilding in action? Wouldn't it be neat for visitors to understand how or why pieces go together, what techniques are important for sustainability, or being able to gain an understanding about how fragile some of these objects are? PLUS... some people could have really great ideas! Some visitors probably know more than we do about supports and physics and chemistry!

It's super cool to see museums taking steps toward a more engaging conservation experience. And boy, do I have some cool examples for those of you interested in pursuing this in your own institutions! And if you're a visitor reading this thinking "hey yes, that sounds cool!" then let the examples below be your guide to future excursions...



Opening up your lab to the public with the use of windows is a good idea for large, busy institutions that might not be able to bring people to the back or with items that really are super sensitive. It allows visitors (and kids!) to see the cool work going on. There are quite a few examples of this so I've chosen two to quickly talk about.

A) Smithsonian American Art Museum - The Lunder Conservation Center at the Smithsonian allows visitors to see crucial behind-the-scenes art conservation. Five labs (frames studio, paintings studio, paintings lab, paper lab, and objects lab) are visible through floor-to-ceiling glass walls, which gives visitors views often not possible. You can also watch videos of these conservation projects!

A view of the lab. Carl Hansen, Smitsonian Institution. Source

B) Philip J Currie Dinosaur Museum -- I have to make a shout out to my hometown! Philip J Currie Dinosaur Museum, just 10 minutes out of Grande Prairie, Alberta, has a unique view of their laboratory where they are conserving fossils. The great part about these windows (also one in the ceiling!) is their location: right beside the children's exhibits, so that young children can really see what scientists are doing, ask questions, and make plans for the future! It's a great experience.

Photographs courtesy of Kelly McLaughlin.


Open storage can be a frightening concept that may only work for certain types of artifacts. Basically, it is the idea of museums opening up storerooms to visitors. Simple as that! This is not exactly a straight forward conservation aspect, however it can be an inexpensive way to display large quantities of material and provide behind-the-scenes views of how collections are stored and conserved. Open storage helps visitors to better understand the museum's mission and function and builds their interest in collections and education. Taking away the secretiveness of museum work can lead to more visitors and greater financial support.

I have to say it's really cool when it can be pulled off! A well-known example of this is Museo Larco in Lima, Peru, which has a branch of regular storage rooms that contain ceramic artifacts from various eras of ancient Peru for visitors to walk through. We know it's a great experience for visitors; just look up any online review agency and you will see the raving.

A look into the Museo Larco open storage. Lyndsay Ruell. Source


Conservation blogs are not a bad thing! (AHEM) They can still be useful resources, particularly for other museums, repositories, and heritage institutions. The next step in this realm is to try and get our friends and neighbors reading such blogs. Make cool conservation projects for families to try! Write about cool famous items and their conservation histories! There are also really neat apps out there that show the conservation process, particularly for paintings such as Touch Van Gogh. This is the COOLEST app. You can zoom in on painting details, see what other older paintings are underneath through the use of X-Rays, look at the backs of paintings (which always have neat little details) and so much more. There's a lot to this app, but it also allows for understanding the different techniques used by art conservators. There is definitely a place for conservation and public in the online world... the trick is finding the key!

4. WORKSHOPS (and no, not with your buddy museum)

Workshops between institutions and professional groups are all well and good but the best kinds of workshops are those done with and for the public on items they own and would recognize. One example of this is the Okanagan Heritage Museum and their Ursula Surtees Regional Conservation Laboratory. They hold workshops with people on how to conserve their family heirlooms, photographs, documents, etc. As someone who grew up in a household with a TON of these I think this is such a cool idea! And a great way to get younger people interested in not only conservation but their family histories! Think of all the amazing histories sitting in people's attics, boxes, and photo albums. Families love this stuff and it's a great way for multiple generations to come together and discuss/preserve their own histories!


So as museums continue to grow and change and recognize the importance of involving their publics in a variety of museum activities, conservation seems to be one of those last problematic walls to climb. It will be exciting to see if more museums attempt to play around with the idea of more open conservation and make it even more interactive and engaging! I would love to see some actual participatory conservation happening in museums (despite the controversies). I know the concept of involving the public in cnservation can be scandalous, frustrating, or sometimes nearly impossible. All I am suggesting is: let's consider it. Let's think about how it could make a difference. Let's also think about the problems with it, because there are always problems! But don't let that stop you! Dream big! What do people think? Anti-share? Pro-share? Any other good/bad examples of this happening out there? Let me know!


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