Since 1975 the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation (FAIC) has supported an initiative to chronicle the history of the field of conservation. The FAIC Oral History Project has resulted in a growing database of transcripts and audio recordings of interviews with conservators, conservation scientists, and individuals in related disciplines. This archive constitutes an invaluable professional resource.
I became involved in the project a little over a year ago, contributing to the archive by conducting interviews. I can testify that my involvement has been both immensely rewarding and unexpectedly challenging. It’s reasonable to feel pressure to do justice to someone’s legacy. Before even arriving at the interview, however, the greatest obstacle I’ve encountered has been to simply schedule a meeting.
Though some individuals firmly decline an interview, the most common response has been agreement to interview — but in a few months. These few months usually turn into several additional months, which may turn into a year or more. In many cases, this is understandable: I’ve found that the timing of my request and the career trajectory of the potential interviewee are crucial. Conservation professionals close to retirement but still working are generally difficult to pin down, while those who have just retired are in a transitional period and may have equal difficulty scheduling a meeting. A commitment to periodically following up is critical to securing an interview.
I’ve found thus far that conservators and conservation professionals generally tend to be modest individuals who would otherwise be inclined to downplay their achievements. Those who have agreed to interview seem to have done so with reluctance. It is in these instances that it is most important to advocate for the value of recording both professional and personal experiences, and to attest that a request for an interview reflects the richness of an individual’s career rather than age. Many members of the generation of conservators in question were fundamental to shaping training programs, treatment methodologies, and the field of conservation as it has emerged in its own right.
As for the interview itself, I admit that it can be a humbling experience. For one, it can be embarrassing to hear yourself on tape! Yet, on the whole, leading interviews has constituted a beneficial learning process for me. Through doing so, I’ve been developing a tangential set of skills to endeavor to employ in each interview: I research my subject thoroughly beforehand to develop meaningful questions; try to listen patiently and actively with minimal interjections; and attempt to direct the conversation organically in a way which puts the interviewee at ease. These are valuable abilities to be nurtured.
An interview I conducted last month confirmed for me how personally insightful it can be to speak with colleagues for the Oral History Project. Interviewing Ann Massing, Paintings Conservator and Assistant to the Director at the Hamilton Kerr Institute (Emeritus), provided insights into the formation and teaching philosophies of the Hamilton Kerr Institute at Cambridge University, where I am currently a Post-Graduate Intern. I was amazed to hear about how international the cohort at the Institute was from the get-go, a characteristic that is still cultivated today. I was exposed to the history of the Institute and its major players over the years, foremost being the first director Herbert Lank, whose influence has been lasting. This has enriched my understanding of working at the Institute. Through Ann’s interview, I also received a sense of how incredibly interconnected the field is, and I am grateful to her for having shared her personal history with me.
As an emerging conservator, it has been fascinating and rewarding to learn about the history of conservation through the Oral History Project. It is a unique way to discover more about institutions of interest or to become better acquainted with colleagues in your vicinity. Interviews provide a window into how the discipline has developed, as well as into current trends in the field and prevailing research questions. Speaking with such accomplished and influential professionals is a privilege, as is being an agent for preserving their memories and legacy, and I would highly recommend the experience.
If you’d like to become involved with the Oral History Project, contact Joyce Hill Stoner at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the AIC page for more information.