Conservation asked three conservators who now direct academic programs to talk about where conservation education ought to be heading in a time of expanding information, diminished resources, and needed public involvement.
May Cassar is director of the Centre for Sustainable Heritage at University College London, where she is responsible for research and teaching on the sustainable use of historic buildings, collections, and sites. Formerly environmental adviser at Resource: The Council for Museums, Archives, and Libraries and the Museums & Galleries Commission, she is the author and editor of seven books relating to preventive conservation, including Environmental Management Guidelines for Museums and Galleries. She is a member of the directory board of ICOM-CC, a fellow of the International Institute for Conservation, and a UKIC-accredited conservator.
Michele Marincola is Sherman Fairchild Chairman and professor of conservation at the Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University (NYU). She is also a conservator for the Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. An expert in the conservation and technical art history of medieval sculpture, she has written extensively on medieval master sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider. During the mid-1990s, she served as cochair for the objects specialty group of the American Institute for Conservation.
Frank G. Matero is associate professor of architecture and chair of the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation at the Graduate School of Fine Arts, University of Pennsylvania. He is also director of the Architectural Conservation Laboratory and research associate of the University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. In addition, he has been a lecturer at the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) in Rome, and he currently serves as regional editor for Conservation and Management of Archaeological Sites and the Journal of Architectural Conservation.
They spoke with Kathleen Dardes, a senior project specialist in the GCI's Education section, and Jeffrey Levin, editor of Conservation, The GCI Newsletter.
Kathleen Dardes: I think it's useful to begin by looking at the state of the broader field. In the past few years, there have been real or threatened closures of conservation facilities, as well as job losses within some institutions. As a result, there's been debate within the profession over how our nonconservation colleagues, and even society itself, perceive and value us. Is the situation a passing anomaly or is it symptomatic of something fundamentally wrong in our relationship to the broader world?
May Cassar: We ought to view this change in a wider context. What's happening in conservation is no different than what's happening in other public-sector areas where there's a move away from the direct delivery of services, and more is being contracted to be done by the private sector.
Michele Marincola: I would be interested in hard data on the loss of jobs in the public sector and whether short-term positions, such as museum fellowships, have replaced them. I think that this is a problem of the economic times. I remember the proliferation of jobs in conservation in the 1980s, when there was more money for cultural programs, and I expect that we might see that time again. To plan for the short term by shutting down programs or by taking far fewer students might be very shortsighted. There might be other ways to approach cyclical job loss, such as teaching better interdisciplinary skills or resourcefulness in the face of adversity.
Frank Matero: We also have to distinguish between conservation in the public and private sectors. It depends on the place. Europe has a much stronger tradition of conservation in the public sector than the United States, where the private sector has always beenat least in the built environment realma stronger area of opportunity.
Cassar: The United Kingdom began to be hit particularly hard about 10 years ago, when a lot of conservation jobs within museums and galleries started to disappear, and the private sector began to deliver the services that previously were done by conservators in the public sector. That experience came as a great cultural shock, one to which we haven't quite adjusted.
Jeffrey Levin: Assuming that there is some shift toward private conservators taking placeeither in the short term or the long termwhat effect would that have, if any, on the way we educate conservators?
Marincola: I think that it would have little effect on training programs. It doesn't change the fundamental information that needs to be imparted in a three- to four-year program. I have a lot of concern about adding too much to programs. Instead, we need to see if what we're doing is the right thing, rather than infinitely expanding the curriculum.
Cassar: Michele, I wonder whether I might ever so politely disagree? It isn't just a question of curriculum stretch. Yes, we have to be careful about constantly adding to a curriculum and expecting it to be forever elastic, but we may have to make some difficult choices, particularly in graduate programs where we have to be selective about the information that our students actually need. In the United Kingdom, public institutions such as museums and galleries are still perceived as the natural employers of conservators. I don't think that education programs are necessarily preparing conservators for a different worldthe cut and thrust of negotiation, being hard nosed and businesslike. That worries me. We have to look at everything, including nonconservation subjects in the curriculum, and see what is needed.
Matero: This is an interesting time for higher education everywheremany established academic and professional disciplines are undergoing intellectual reflection in terms of principles and practices. I don't think anyone has been spared this. We've been slow to participate in the rapidly expanding discourse on these larger issues of heritage. We haven't been very good about coming to the table and presenting our case as relevant. We've avoided a critical examination of our own historical-based and culturally based narratives. But the amount of critiquing that is going on by nonconservators about conservation and heritage suggests that it's time to reenter the dialogue. We've got to contribute to the discourse using the very strengths that our transdisciplinary training provides. Conservation has always been about theoretical and practical matters and their relationship to the larger social and global issues. We don't do a very good job communicating that.
On the subject of current education, it's not unlike many fields. For example, medical education is reeling under the amount of information being generated that students need to know. We have to be careful about the pressure to know less and less about more and more. That's the opposite of the traditional thinking about professionalization. Graduate education is about knowing what questions to ask. Students have their lifetime to get the answers. I'd hate to see us embrace changes because of temporary fluctuations in the economy.
Dardes: Frank, do you think conservation education needs a critical assessment? Does it need reform, or is it basically on the right path?
Matero: We have to continually find new ways to make what we do relevant. I was intrigued by May's title of being the director of the Centre for Sustainable Heritage. Sustainability is one of those concepts to take a broader view of how conservation fits into the big picture. The word has suffered, unfortunately, from overuse and from misuse, but its still a useful concept. I think if you polled most conservators working in the built or immovable area, many of them would have very traditional and somewhat rigid notions about who they are and what they do. They underestimate their effect on the public in terms of why we do what we do and the effects it has on society.
Marincola: The burden cannot rest with the graduate programs to complete a conservator. We're in the business of teaching students the skills to enable them to continue learning. How to look at a work of art to judge its condition. How to ask the right questions. How to think about the object's material nature, its authorship, its authenticity, its historical record, and its aesthetic nature. And to have a basic understanding of scientific methodologies. We don't train conservation scientists at the Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts, but it is important that our graduates have a basic familiarity with analytical methodologies, their applications, and, most important, their limitations. There is internal pressure to teach more treatment-based courses. But to think that we can impart in three to four years the skills necessary to brilliantly inpaint, line a painting, varnish correctly under different circumstances, remove polychromiesthat's asking too much of a program. We all spend a lifetime in acquiring these skills. We're really here to set up critical thinkingto teach students how to ask the right questions and where to go to get answers to them.
Cassar: What our program intends to do is bring into the classroom interdisciplinary professions to discuss issues related to conservation decision making, in terms of what should or could be done to objects or buildings or sites. To break out of the niche into which conservators often seem to retreat. I see conservation as part of a growing public attitude that society needs to be sustainable. I agree that the word sustainable has been overused. It's up to us to recapture the essence of that word in terms of conservation because, after all, it all started with concern over the conservation of the planet. The environment isn't only the environment inside our buildingsit's the environment outside them. Otherwise, how do we overcome the environmental double standards of wanting to conserve objects in very controlled environments without being concerned over the cost to the environment outside? I can't call myself a conservator without taking this holistic view. We need to be aware of society's expectation of conservation and to consider why, when it thinks about conservation, it thinks first about the natural environment. Why doesn't society think about material culture, which is the physical evidence of our identity?
Dardes: Do you think that newly minted conservators coming out of programs understand that they actually serve society rather than objects? Do we make that fundamental connection as clear as we need to?
Cassar: I think many do not understand that conservation is primarily about people.
Matero: I liken conservation training and the practice of conservation to programs in ecology that developed out of the more traditional disciplines of the natural and physical sciences. Many of these programs were developed not only with natural and physical science components but, more recently, with cultural components. You cannot take people out of ecology, and culture is part of people.
To get back to education, we should never give up the idea that one of the strengths of the field, despite the pressures to specialize more, is the fact that conservation is firmly built on the hybridization of education in the humanities and the sciences. This gives us breadth of vision, let's us see the problem in as many aspects as possible. Right now I'm working in the American Southwest, where I've been engaged in one of the most interesting aspects of conservation, which training never prepared me formaking culturally relative the process of conservation. Working in indigenous traditional communities is one aspect of the cultural dimension in the contemporary context. Another area is the notion of preventionlooking at ways of mitigating damage before it happens. That has given rise to this whole interest in management. These are contemporary issues that are changing the way education views the necessities of the field. They also reflect the way the field is changing.
Cassar: Frank, you've spoken about the conservator as being almost a polymath, a generalistnot a specialist working in a very narrow field but being able to range widely. Somebody like that should be valued in any organization and be involved in decisions at a senior level. Yet we don't see that in practice. Conservators are not always perceived as team players, part of a collaborative decision-making process. There is a defensiveness that we need to counter. And one way of doing this is to have conservation students come into contact with potential users of heritage, clients who put them on the spot, challenging them in a safe environment so that they learn not to come out fighting or to retreat into their shellbut can actually exchange information and be prepared to lose some battles for the greater good. It isn't the end of the world if we don't win every single argument.
Marincola: Train for a certain level of resourcefulness . . .
Cassar: Yes. For lateral thinking. We do conservation no service if we take each battle as being the last one we're ever going to fight.
Marincola: It's the profession's unfortunate reputation for stiff-neckedness.
Cassar: Dare I say itis it the kind of people that conservation attracts?
Marincola: Or whom we accept into programs? Are we going to the right undergraduates within our universities to inform them about conservation?
Cassar: There will always be a need for practitioners, the people who actually do hands-on conservation. But there is also a desperate need for tomorrow's conservation leaders. Where are they going to come from?
Dardes: So do you think we need to recruit a different type of conservation professional?
Cassar: Maybe in recruiting students, we need to be aware not only of what they can offer on graduating but of what they are going to do in 10 or 15 years. What is their growth potential?
Marincola: How do you judge that? We're asking ourselves this question right now. At NYU, we've just started the process of curriculum review, setting the goals for the next 5 to 10 years for the Conservation Center and also forming committees to look at the curriculum. We've conducted surveys of our graduates and their supervisors and have been working with that feedback on what works well and what needs amplification or improvement in the program. Two of the questions that we have are: What kind of core curriculum will we teach? and Are we targeting the right people to come into this field, or are we simply taking whomever offers themselves?
Cassar: The way that I would deal with this is to look at the applicants not only in terms of their potential skills at dealing with objects but also in terms of their skills at dealing with people. Can they demonstrate that they love people as much as they love objects?
Matero: In working with the built environment, you cannot avoid peoplealthough some try. In the past 22 years that I've been teaching, I'm seeing a much more sophisticated and a much more aware applicantnow more than ever before. Conservation certainly is out there in the public sphere, and applicants are getting that information, whether it's through public television or through the press. But it's not coming from us, and that is partly the problem.
Cassar: Providing conservation professionals who are studying in our programs with the opportunity to work closely with other disciplines might be a way not only to reassure and reinforce what is good about conservation and our knowledge base but also to communicate the value of conservation to others.
Matero: This is an important point, because students emulate what they experience during their education. The programs I've been involved with have always been embedded in larger professional schools, so students in architecture, planning, and landscape architecture cannot help but take courses withand become somewhat familiar withconservation as a subset of those professions. Their sharing of approaches makes for better professionals. They come out better sensitized to the issues and the possibilities. That's probably been the greatest success that I've seen at Penn, where there is much cross-disciplinary discussion and respect.
Cassar: I endorse entirely what you said. This encourages young conservation professionals to listen to what others are saying about conservation and cultural heritage. Increasingly, the public is more knowledgeable and is setting the agenda. We need to listen to what is out there and not just do the talking.
Matero: Right. One thing I want to clarify that was mentioned earlierthe word generalist. Although I talked about a broad perspective being one of the great strengths of the field, that perspective is nothing unless it is backed up by expertise in the various components that make it distinct. It is a daunting task when you actually look at the required knowledge and skills that a conservator has to have.
Marincola: It's a lifetime achievement, actually. The question for us is, What needs to be imparted in the short amount of time that we have them?
Matero: This goes back to the old arguments about apprenticeship versus formal educationis the role of a formal education to lay out the path which has been set by others before you, in ways that are complete?
Cassar: Which is why I prefer calling it "education" rather than "training." The understanding of the philosophical and wider ethical values and significance of the heritage is so strong that it influences the formation of the profession so muchor it ought to. It's not just "training." We're not teaching people the mechanics of fixing an object. There are ethics involved. There are serious issues relating to authenticity and renewal, which are paralleled in the environmental field. We have to be knowledgeable and confident about the conservation field, but our role is not exclusive.
Matero: Recently I've seen within the ranks a certain amount of criticism focused on this distinction between the tangible and the intangible. It's been advanced by those who are concerned with issues of heritage but who've had very little experience in the realities of the materiality of places and things. As a conservator and an educator, it never once crossed my mindand I hope not my students' minds eitherthat the tangible is divorced from the intangible. To do so puts down conservators as plumbers. And that's why conservation education involves art history, architectural history, the sciences, and a certain amount of cultural anthropology. It's about people, not things. It's about ideas and beliefs and valuesand not about atoms and aesthetics only. I agree that there have been moments in the field when the hegemony of science dictated the way we were perceived and the way we get our information and the way we communicate, because science is privileged in contemporary society . . .
Marincola: It's perceived, incorrectly, as being objective.
Matero: Shining the spotlight on the dichotomies of intangible and tangible is important. It illuminates the fact that conservation developed out of recognition of both simultaneously.
Dardes: Frank, you said earlier that students emulate what they learn. How do we construct classroom or field experiences to form the kinds of conservation professionals we want in the field?
Matero: In the years I've been teaching, I've seen tremendous strides in conservation education. I have not seen equal strides in the profession, and I say that with the caveat that I'm talking about the immovable cultural heritage. I don't see the jobs there, I don't see the upper levels recognizing the need. Values, if anything, have been politicized, and recent events clearly indicate the power of things and places.
But let me turn to pedagogy. Conservation of the built environment is a bit more inclusive at the University of Pennsylvania. It ranges from material conservation to preservation planning to site management to landscape conservation. Andwith a core curriculum in history, theory, technology, and practice that everyone takesstudents move in their second year to specialization in one of the four areas I've mentioned. Any program has to balance knowledge with skill-based education, and of course we're all straining under the amount of technical know-how, as well as general information, students need to have under their belt. This big reevaluation of conservation curriculum has forced me to look at my own institution in terms of what we're delivering to students. We've fiercely upheld the notion of the core curriculum. I've gotten a lot of pressure from other institutions to have students specialize within the first year, but I don't believe in that. The idea is to create courses that recognize the need for praxis, not just by ejecting students into internships but by actually building skillsfor example, using the tremendous explosion of digital technologies for recording and documentation. We also have a program in heritage economics and visual communication skills.
Levin: Are there things that conservation education can learn from education in general? Are there innovations in the education field that can be applied to conservation education specifically?
Cassar: We have, together with the GCI, been trying out some techniques that we are keen to utilize in the master's program we're launching in 2004. One thing that has worked extremely well but that is also resource intensive is team teaching. We had two teachers from different disciplines teaching in the classroom, each offering different takes on a specific problem. There was the confidence between the two to disagree, to contradict, to generate a discussion, and to come to a consensus with the students. We used case studies dealing with complex issues, which we have written specifically for the program, and we used them throughout the workshop to enable students to look at the issues in depth together and to learn from one another, as well as being guided by the teachers. The other aspect was the Web. We put basic information on the Web, which students had to read before class. The classroom was the venue for discussion and debate rather than for imparting basic information.
We were, of course, dealing with experienced professionals, very varied in terms of their backgrounds, but they were all talking conservation. And that was the delight. There was no question that their perception of conservation was enhanced, and they each took something different away with them. But, of course, we were not training conservatorswe were not attempting to turn architects or scientists into conservators.
Marincola: John Sexton, the new president of NYU, is very interested in interdisciplinary studies, and we are interested in incorporating more into the program. By its nature as part of the Institute of Fine Arts, the Conservation Center offers an interdisciplinary approach to conservation education. But we offer more than lots of art history classes for conservators. We also teach a fair number of courses designed for both art history students and conservation students. And those are team-taught, as May was describing, and offer a paradigm for how art historians or curators might work with conservators or scientists. Some courses are open to undergraduate study with the idea of attracting interested undergraduates from chemistry, sociology, or other fields, who are curious and want to broaden their knowledge. We don't expect that they're going to become conservators, but it does raise their consciousness.
Cassar: Exactly. It makes them more receptive to the whole ethos of conservation. Marincola: The other two programs similar to oursthe art conservation program at Buffalo State run by Chris Tahk, and the University of Delaware-Winterthur program that Debbie Hess Norris directsare sharing resources. We're often able to share the expertise of, say, a photograph conservator and a photo historian and teach a weeklong course that all three programs participate in. I would love to do more sharing with the programs that are within reach of one another.
Cassar: I'm particularly interested in looking at ways in which our program might be able to provide colleagues from developing countries with some time in London studyingbut also to do some of the course back at home. Developing countries, very often, have limited number of staff. Releasing somebody for even a year to study abroad overloads those left behind. It also creates a sense of displacement for those who have gone abroad, and they often have difficulty reintegrating once they return. So I'm looking at ways to enable people from developing countries to take advantage of our coursebut not offering it as a full distance learning, because the value of the face-to-face is something that I don't want to lose.
Marincola: For years, NYU has provided the opportunity for students from other countries to study for a year as special students. They're not obligated to commit to three years of art history, language, conservation, and conservation history, but they can focus immediately on an area that interests themplus, take courses throughout the university. The drawback has been that some students have opted to stay in the United States, so you can argue that there's no benefit for their country.
Matero: I'd like to address this in a slightly different way. As educators, we need to get into the discussion that's taking place on the relevance of international training programs. There's a growing abandonment of these programs, which have been considered a lingering form of colonialism. But conservation, as a methodological approach, is about as close to universal tenets as we can get. I've heard again and againand I've experienced it with the many international research fellows, who don't have access to higher education for two or three years but can come for six monthsthat one of the most life affirming experiences they've had is to sit in a room where no one has a common language but all share aspects of universality related to conservation and heritage. There's been a growing detraction of conservation as a First World, Western import to developing countries. Those of us who feel strongly need to counteract that. Conservation is one of those areasheritage is one of those areasthat is universal, but it has to be contextualized, culturally and geographically. There is a real dearth right now of opportunities to share in the knowledge and the dialogue of conservation that we can provide. I think the conservation field is in a bad way right now with respect to international programs.
Cassar: Can I give you one argument that we might be able to use? A key principle of sustainability is local distinctivenesswhich isn't only about wildlife or topography or local building styles. It's distinctiveness in relation to education, personal skills, local product, values, and knowledge. What we teach doesn't replace these things for those who take our programs. I think we're sensitive enough to realize that what we ought to be doing is enhancing the local knowledge that these students bring with them.
Matero: But the notion of doing just that is perceived as part of this importation of applied approaches that has been criticized. There are people like you and like myself who are, in fact, practicing this form of sustainable conservation. But at the moment, there is the louder voice insisting on the irrelevance of the international approach in training and favoring only regional trainingwhich I agree is important, but not at the expense of the opportunity for cross-cultural exchanges.
Cassar: We need both.
Marincola: And it goes in both directions. Students from the United States might be interested to study abroad.
Cassar: If you go back to ancient philosophical texts in any culturebe it Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaismyou can see how embedded conservation is in the way of life of communities.
Matero: Right, but the trouble is that the embrace of modernism has set itself apart from traditionand apart from conservation. New is good, old is bad. That is what conservation has to fightthe false dichotomies of modern versus tradition and new versus old. These are still operating. So even when individuals come to study conservation or to explore further conservation from within their own context, the support systems that they return to can be rather limited. And that's another reason to argue for an investment in regional training and educationit's reinforcement. We have to recognize that as well.
Cassar: If I could say one last thing in this conversation, it's that we also need to be in listening mode. We need to be aware that we occupy very privileged positions. We get to handle wonderful things, and we almost take that as a right, when actually we have to make what we do accessible to a much wider public. We need to explain what we do, and we need to put people first.
Matero: If I could take the opposite viewnot from the perspective of the relationship between the conservator and the heritage but between the conservator and the public. Conservation has had a small voice in the United States. While federal policies have recognized the need for conservation, there's been very limited follow-up in employment and in funding, particularly in training and research. We've made great strides in education, but we've neglected to convince the public and the politicians of the importance of the work. We need only to compare our resources and programs with those of European countries to see the discrepancy. We really need to communicate what we hold to be so critical and important to contemporary society.
Marincola: I think advocacy is key. To educate our students to do that effectively is going to be increasingly importantas is helping them to grasp the importance of working within a group. Innovation is not done by a genius alone in a room. We need to help our students understand that innovation and problem solving within our field are best done with a group of people from various backgrounds. Our students need to learn how to talk with one another and work with one another betterand to continue the classroom on the outside.