By Neville Agnew
Since its earliest days, the Getty Conservation Institute has undertaken collaborative conservation field projects in different parts of the world. The first was the Nefertari Wall Paintings project in Egypt, which started in the mid-1980s. Several years later, the Institute began working in China, initially at the two ancient Buddhist grotto sites of Mogao and Yungang. Many other collaborative and diverse undertakings followed: in Ecuador, Tanzania, Benin, Central America, Tunisia, and the Czech Republic, to name but a few. Each field project has meant the building of a relationship with a foreign partner, typically the authority responsible for heritage.
GCI involvement in foreign field projects has made it important for the Institute to devote attention to the essentials of a good collaboration, since this is a sine qua non of success and is the hidden—sometimes even overlooked—aspect of an organization focused primarily on excellence in its conservation work. It is easy to take for granted a partnership in which, to put it in the simplest terms, there is a need (a foreign partner and site), a provider of expertise (the GCI), and a common purpose. Only when things go wrong or stall does the awareness dawn that there is more to a project than the conservation challenge per se—and that a focus on the relationship is at least as important as the attention given to the conservation of the site.
Stakeholders, it is widely acknowledged, are essential for success in the conservation and management of sites. If they are ignored or sidelined, problems inevitably arise. In collaborative projects of the kind conducted by the GCI, the most important stakeholder for the success of the project is the partner. This can be forgotten when a formal agreement with legalistic language is drawn up. The resulting document—of necessity exact in terms of responsibilities and conflict resolution—may unintentionally convey a rigid, contractual tone that seems antithetical to the spirit of collaboration with foreign partners whose cultural framework is not necessarily attuned to the pitfalls faced in the litigious culture of the United States. The complex formal agreements entered into by the GCI with foreign partners—typically ministries of culture or departments of antiquities—have occasionally been utilized, unfortunately, by internal factions within a government as opportunities for political advantage. From the perspective of the GCI, essentially innocent clauses such as agreeing to binding arbitration in Switzerland in event of dispute, holding the Institute harmless should mishap occur to the heritage or site that is the focus of the project, and laying out photography and copyright positions can, and have been, perceived by some in the partner country as overly advantageous to the GCI. There have been instances when local press has used agreements for political advantage in internal factional conflicts. As a result, the Institute considers it important to mitigate an impression of constraint and negativity in formal agreements and has reexamined the tone and terms of these agreements. By including within agreements clear and positive language emphasizing benefits, enhancement of local conservation capabilities and professional development, sharing, and collegial cooperation, both formal legal needs and professional collaborative objectives are achieved. In any case, after the agreements are filed away, the true test of collaborative success begins.
Sustainability and Credibility
In 2003 the GCI published the proceedings of a conference dealing with sustainable approaches to the conservation of the built environment. Like values and stakeholders—words that in recent years have become central in the method and implementation of heritage conservation and management—sustainability has likewise achieved a high level of importance in the heritage conservation lexicon. It is equally applicable to partnerships.
The GCI's longest continuing partnership among its field projects has been in China, with the State Administration for Cultural Heritage (SACH) and the Dunhuang Academy. The partnership, which began with one set of objectives, over time expanded into new and significant endeavors, including site conservation, wall paintings conservation, and visitor management. Through the China Principles project—carried out with SACH and the Australian Heritage Commission—the GCI has worked with its Chinese partners to produce guidelines for all of those charged with the preservation of China's cultural heritage sites.
When Dunhuang Academy Director Fan Jinshi was asked what has enabled the GCI and the Academy—the Chinese institution managing the Mogao grottoes—to work successfully together for so long, she enumerated criteria of a common goal, well-defined and clearly stated objectives, a good conservation and management methodology (the China Principles), and sharing of work. Tactfully, she did not elaborate on the rare disagreements in which one partner has critiqued the other for not having met a work deadline or having failed to implement an intervention in an appropriate manner. Had she done so, she would no doubt have emphasized that these issues have always been resolved by cordial, though direct and sometimes even forceful, discussion. It is not coincidental that the sustained presence of the GCI in its partnering and relationship with the Dunhuang Academy has created a comfort level that has allowed these productive exchanges to take place.
It is also interesting to examine dispassionately how professional disagreements can be resolved, allowing the partners to move forward immediately and without a residue of rancor. At one level, the key is trust in the partner and in the common objectives. But trust can only be built by sustained cooperation over time. Over the years of the GCI's collaborative projects in China, mainly at Mogao, relationships have been forged and sustained with the site authorities and, importantly, with SACH, too, and that continuity has allowed a dynamic evolution of not only the relationship but also the scope—from site-focused initiatives to more ambitious ones with national impact, such as the China Principles. The exciting dimension of work in China over this period has been the opportunity both to work on the "artifact"—i.e., at the site level, in conservation work that is challenging conceptually as well as technically—and to use the credibility of the Institute and the strength of the relationship as a springboard for a larger endeavor.
This credibility has enabled the GCI to introduce other partnering organizations to China's heritage authority. This has been the case with the China Principles, a threefold undertaking of the GCI, SACH, and the Australian Heritage Commission (replaced in 2004 by the Australian Heritage Council). Subsequently, the Commission itself entered into a memorandum of understanding with SACH to cooperate in a variety of other cultural initiatives. In another development that grows out of the strong Chinese partnership with the GCI, the Dunhuang Academy and nearby Lanzhou University have jointly established a postgraduate wall paintings conservation training program to raise both academic and practical conservation standards; both the GCI and the Courtauld Institute of Art in London (a longtime GCI partner) will provide the program with professional support. These are the kinds of results that relationships of trust and sustained presence make possible.
Critical to the success of any collaborative project are the personnel and personalities involved. In China, the Institute has been extremely fortunate in having solid backing at the highest levels within SACH and the Dunhuang Academy. Just as sustainability is important in the relationship, so is stability of partner personnel. A project is unlikely to flourish with frequent leadership and personnel changes.
Sharing the Workload
The GCI, in working collaboratively with partners, seeks a sharing of workloads and expertise and a commitment of resources. The fact that the GCI is essentially a "software" provider, not a "hardware" provider, has sometimes been problematic in the eyes of foreign partners whose political leadership may understand hardware but not necessarily software. The X-ray diffractometer, worth thousands of dollars, and the state-of-the-art environmental monitoring station as contributions to a collaborative project are visible, tangible evidence of commitment. Yet a new methodology or procedure, which has less communicability and glamour, is infinitely more valuable in the long term, especially as the partner may not have trained or experienced personnel to use the diffractometer, and maintenance and spare parts are prohibitively expensive. Fortunately, our Chinese partners have understood our perspective in the work we do together, coining the phrase "software provider" and using it often when referring to the GCI's contribution to the joint endeavors.
Sigmund Freud, it is said (perhaps apocryphally), noted that his patients responded best when they had paid well for their treatment. There is a lesson here. From the beginning, the GCI's partnership in China has always entailed a substantial contribution by the Chinese that has included internal travel and accommodation for GCI personnel. For other activities—such as the two international conferences on the conservation of Silk Road sites, held at the Dunhuang Academy in 1993 and 2004—there has been an equal sharing of expense. Over the sixteen years of partnership, this cost has been substantial; the Chinese contribution could only have been achieved because of the solidity of the relationship, which in turn has been reinforced by mutual trust and clearly articulated shared objectives.
There are many lessons that can be learned from an examination of both successful and unsuccessful partnerships and collaborations. The most important is that collaborations must be relationship focused, not artifact focused. Building a relationship-focused project has its own requirements. Of the long list that could be drawn up, a few points are key: know and respect the culture and its history, ensure good teamwork, and have on your team someone from the culture who, as a native speaker, can read the nuances and smooth cultural gaffes. Good relations and working practices take time to build and are established at the personal level, not at the signing of the agreement. In other words, a successful partnership is built up, not down. As has been said: the only successful thing made from the top down is a grave.
Partnerships need to be vessels for all partners. Not all ships make the voyage, but the best chance for keeping a project partnership buoyant and on course results as much from attention to the nature of the relationship as from attention to the professional and technical conservation aspects of the project.
Neville Agnew is principal project specialist with GCI Field Projects and project leader of the GCI's China initiative.