A conservator's view

Pierrette Squires, 28.11.2012
Pierrette Squires at #museums2012
It was the first time I had been to the Museums Association conference, in spite of having worked in museums for over 10 years - as a conservator I usually go to conservation conferences. I decided to write my blog on my overall reaction to the conference as well as including a couple of session reviews.

I was surprised and a little disappointed at how little conservation and collections care featured in the conference, particularly when the wider issues surrounding the ethics of collections care and sustainability fitted well with the conference themes.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given my reaction, I think there were less than 10 conference attendees listed as conservators - I think conservators need to be encouraged to present at and attend the Museums Association conference.

I believe better collections care is best achieved through institutions taking a holistic approach; with every member of staff having a basic understanding of conservation principles, a mixed specialism conference such as this would be the ideal place to share current best practise.

Speak out

This was a session at which disabled cultural professionals presented case studies of their own work to increase inclusion and access both for visitors and members of staff in museums.

Edward Richards, the managing director of Cutting Edge Design, was an extremely good speaker - his company has worked with both the Tate and the Science Museum and, though both are large institutions, there were elements of their work that could easily be used in much smaller museums, such as a printed British Sign Language guide to a gallery.

One of the main points I took away from the whole session was that we have become very good at making sure gallery spaces are accessible to individuals with physical disabilities - lifts are available, corridors are wide - but we still have a long way to go for visitors with sight, hearing and learning disabilities.

Once we increase access for people with all types of disability we gain the added bonus of reaching a wider range of learning styles and those who do not have English as their first language.

Delphine Harmel, an advisor to the French Ministry for Culture, presented case studies of her work but the part of her talk that I found inspiring was when she spoke about her experience as a blind visitor of a guided touch tour she had received in Italy, where a museum assistant had personally taken her around a gallery allowing her to touch objects.

The touch tour sparked some conversation about how people touch, I found this interesting from a conservation perspective to recognise the care with which blind and partially sighted individuals touch when they are using their fingers to see as opposed to our general assumption that members of the public will not touch carefully. I left feeling that this type of touch tour is something every museum could offer.

Personally I found the accessibility of the conference better than most I have been to. I am partially deaf and often struggle to hear in large auditoria; the speeches were transcribed and displayed on a large screen in this session, which I found extremely useful.

Click here for Museum Practice case studies on access and outreach

Hold the front page

This session on heritage crime was a late addition to the conference and suffered lower attendance due to lack of publicity, which was a shame as the session was brilliant.

Bill Seaman’s accounts of crime at Norwich Castle Museum were bluntly honest and enlightening, showing how we all need to review our museum's security, considering not just the value but also the attractiveness and portability of collections.

The existence of the Alliance to Reduce Crime against Heritage (ARCH) was highlighted, as were the upcoming seminars on museum security run by the Collections Trust.

An interesting point was made about the sometimes slow police response to heritage crime, reflecting the historically slow response to wildlife crime in the wildlife conservation sector - this has much improved after it was shown that wildlife criminals are usually involved in larger crime networks, increasing the perceived importance of arresting those involved.

Metal theft is a clear example of heritage criminals who are involved with wider criminal activity. Rowan Julie Brown, the director of the Scottish Mining Museum, spoke about the issue of metal theft from outside storage areas and the importance of knowing what you have and responsible collection rationalisation before the thieves do the job for you.

Overall I found the conference very relevant to my work and inspiring. It was good to be able to network with museum professionals outside of conservation. The academic, political and ethical sessions were well balanced by the keynote speakers, storytelling and fantastic ceilidh.

Pierrette Squires is a conservator for Bolton Library, Museum and Archive Service

This blog was originally published by Museum Development North West, a programme of museum development for north west museums up to March 2015, delivered by The Manchester Partnership and the Cumbrian Consortium.