Kudos go to Richard McCoy, Conservator of Objects & Variable Art at the Indianapolis Museum of Art for instigating and moderating the first Great Debate at the AIC 2012 Annual Meeting. This session consisted of two Oxford-Style Debate sessions of 30 minutes each on a chosen topic. Each debate session consisted of initial presentations from the teams lasting for five minutes. Members of the audience were then allowed to ask questions and each debate team was given time to respond. Then each team gave closing arguments for an additional five minutes. Richard was very clear that debaters were chosen for their willingness to participate and were not necessarily representing their personal views on the topics. And, clearly the topics were chosen and worded to be provocative! Before the debate the audience was polled by a show of hands on who agreed or disagreed with the statement. After the debate the audience was asked whose opinions were swayed so that a winning team could be chosen.
This dry introduction doesn’t represent the fun and excitement that ensued during the actual debate. I can’t remember any sessions at previous AIC meetings that elicited raucous laughter, huge applause, and cheers and boos from the crowded room. Richard projected a huge stopwatch on the screen to time the statements and I can only imagine how nervous it made the debaters because it got my pulse racing just watching it! When Paul Messier’s iPad froze during his opening statement my heart lept to my mouth and his off the cuff comment became part of the drama.
The participants must be complemented on their willingness to put themselves forward and get into the spirit with a bit of trash talking and theatrics all in good fun. I think this demonstrated that it is possible to debate topics of real importance within our professional society without rancor or taking ourselves too seriously. This session was clearly a crowd favorite and I hope it will be repeated at future meetings. Below is the statement for the first debate topic and text or talking points from the two teams. The second debate will be included in a separate post. Please feel free to weigh yourself by commenting here on the blog.
TOPIC #1: Publishing accurate and complete “how-to guides” for conservation and restoration treatments online is the best way for us to care for cultural heritage in the 21st century.
For the affirmative:
- Paul Messier
- Karen Pavelka
- Mary Striegel
As our colleagues on the other side will no doubt point out, you can’t teach conservation using new digital technologies, like say, the internet. What they mean, of course, is that you can’t teach conservation treatment. And if you choose to focus on treatment as the defining attribute of our profession then my team has powerful arguments in store. But of course the field is more than treatment. The keywords we should all focus on are:
- Cultural Heritage
Publish: We in conservation, especially those of us privileged with something worth sharing, have a professional obligation to communicate that knowledge. Publishing online has tremendous advantages in terms of cost, environmental sustainability and the ability to immediately reach people globally.
Guides: What’s a guide? A guide is not a rote set of formulas and solutions. A guide is just that: It provides information helpful to formulating a solution, for treatment issues and beyond. A guide is patently not prescriptive. Guides promote thinking. Guides do not shut it down.
Cultural Heritage: As conservators we have an obligation to look beyond our own immediate challenges and confront some of our own biases. The world is a big place and again, we who have the privilege of educations developed through internships and academic training don’t want to be in a position of saying to the world “you have to do it our way.” Instead we need to break through educational, ethnic, economic, religious barriers to effectively serve material culture and reach those with the courage to stand up and defend it.
“Best”: Best does not mean “only.” Of course there will always be a place for “traditional” conservation education. But if you are serious about your ethical obligation to do the most good for the greatest number of objects then you must get serious about moving content online.
Conservation Online has roughly 10,000 subscribers in 92 countries. In his remarkable career of graduate school training Dan Kushel has had, give or take, 340 students — from a handful of countries. It’s great that these fortunate students were able to command such lavish resources. But is that realistic for needs of cultural heritage globally? We can and should do more.
Announcing EDX a new joint venture to put MIT and Harvard courses online, MIT president Susan Hockfield said “you can choose to view this era as one of threatening change and unsettling volatility, or you can see it as a moment charged with the most exciting possibilities presented to educators in our lifetimes.”
Like MIT and Harvard, we cannot afford nostalgia for the way we were trained to cloud our vision for the future.
For the negative:
- Victoria Montana Ryan
- Scott Carrlee
- Matthew Skopek
“Publishing accurate and complete.” With best practices constantly evolving how quickly will complete and accurate be incomplete, inaccurate, and obsolete? Online “how-to-treatment-guides” could become the 8-track tapes of conservation that AIC would need to maintain – maybe of interest historically but no one would use. Technology moves fast and keeping up with changes demands time. Our esteemed colleagues might well argue that an online format would be the easiest to enable quick updates.
Quick and easy doesn’t necessarily mean accurate and complete and current mechanisms for publishing a complete and accurate online “how-to guide” can sometimes be difficult. Publishing a peer-reviewed article is very different from throwing something up on a blog. Well researched publications are already currently available in a variety of formats – what does an online “how-to-treatment-guide” really contribute? Let us consider return on investment. A recent article by Adrian Ellis, published in the winter 2012 edition of Grantmakers in the Arts, notes stresses placed on organizations when there is a mismatch between expectations and capacity. This could easily apply to AIC if we were to be constantly trying to update “how-to-guides”. With limited resources what would the return on the investment be?
What if accurate and complete “best practices” include methods, materials, equipment, etc. that are beyond the reach of most members – will their businesses be hurt by owners whose expectations may be too great? Will owners insist on pursuing actions that may be neither feasible nor necessary, thus leading to increased costs and ultimately have a net result of actually reducing conservation treatments? Another problem with online “how-to-treatment-guides” is there is no one there to answer questions that arise or to provide insights or warnings if one goes astray. There is often difficulty in translating what one reads or hears into correct action – and is always subject to misinterpretation. Given the many variables of conservation treatments such guides may be a useful adjunct in teaching arenas but is no substitution for hands-on teaching.
“Best way for us to care for cultural heritage in 21st century” Really? A “how-to guide” for the 21st century? Such a guide seems so 19th century, rather irrelevant. How-to guides might have been fine when the paradigm was scarcity of available information but now we have an abundance (overload) of information. We (AIC) should not be trying to produce or police “how-to treatment-guides” but rather seek to be learned guides, an authoritative voice in the cacaphony of the internet, empowering today’s user with information that discusses the complexities, nuances, judgment and experience that are necessary at every step of conservation. Today’s consumers of information want to curate their own content and a “how-to-guide” does not cover the why or why-not, the critical thinking, that is vital to the process. We need to show that preservation is relevant, so while informational and educational publications and videos are important they should be geared more toward the thinking process and not treatment recipes. Defining the target audience and creating guides for care, that are less likely to become quickly outdated, may be a better approach to engaging others, in both thought and participation, in the quest to care for cultural heritage in the 21st century.
The central point is that for AIC/The Conservation Profession to be relevant in a web based world, we need to be seen as the source for timely, relevant and accurate information, but this does not mean how to guides for treatment.
In the audience poll before the debate there was overwhelming support for the negative position. From my perspective as AIC’s e-Editor this was not a surprise, but frankly was somewhat disheartening. I was pleasantly surprised that whether due to reason or impassioned delivery, it was the Affirmative Team who managed to sway more people to their side when the poll was repeated after the debate concluded. While this was clearly still a minority view, it showed that there are compelling reasons for us to be putting our material online. Congratulations to all involved.