By Sharon Cather
As we peer back from the turn of a new century, the history of conservation education seems very short indeed—barely a few decades. It has evolved, largely erratically, partly in response to perceived needs within the profession and partly in response to the student market. Both of these forces of evolution present issues that neither can be nor should be resolved wholly within the educational context. Yet they are critical, since conservation education is not merely a reflection of current needs but also a powerful influence in shaping the future directions of conservation itself.
What are these issues? Broadly, they can be subsumed within the answer to the question: What should the "product" (or, inevitably, products) of education be? That is, what are the ranges and levels of knowledge and skills required? The answer, however complex, to this basic question generates the plethora of specific educational issues: curriculum content, structure and sequence, teachers and teaching methods, entrant profile and requirements, and learning and research contexts.
Defining a Conservation Education
To define the knowledge and skills required in conservation means defining conservation itself—its aims, approaches, and methods. But each of these is rapidly evolving. Aims have, rightly, escalated to encompass public awareness, holistic management, cultural economics, and risk assessment. Approaches have shifted decisively from remedial treatment to preventive and passive intervention, and from a focus on individual objects to sites and collections. Methods have proliferated hugely as scientific technology is more effectively harnessed, and in response to the more complex demands of passive intervention. Moreover, the professional, and hence educational, definitions of the individuals who under-take this bewildering range of activities depends, in turn, on the administrative infrastructure of conservation, on who legally—or traditionally—is responsible for what. This varies not only nationally (and even occasionally regionally) but also with the proprietary context within which the conservation is undertaken—that is, whether public or private, and whether it is a site, museum, or historic building in current use.
Finally, to this litany of preconditions for considering the present state of conservation education must be added the assertion that the acquisition of skills and knowledge is not confined to the relatively brief period of formal training leading to some qualification. Rather it is an educational process that continues throughout a professional career, and that process must be both accommodated within and fostered by the administrative structure in order to ensure professional standards.
How has the educational establishment responded to this challenge? Erratically, inevitably. An apparently irreconcilable diversity of educational "products" has evolved in reaction to the protean aims of conservation. Scant decades ago, a restorer cleaned and retouched, or cleaned and glued. Now, at minimum, a conservator is presumed to understand the original materials of the object and the way in which they have altered; to appreciate the cultural and social values that it—and indeed its context—may have; to assess its condition and rate of decay; to advise on preventive measures; to have the knowledge and skills to plan and execute remedial interventions with a vast range of conservation materials and methods; and to do all of this within an ethical framework. And this list conspicuously omits documentation, a real technological runaway: the 1980s debate of whether to use color or black and white has now metamorphosed into whether to use AutoCAD or GIS.
Is all of this possible? Can it be taught? Can it be learned by one person? Or perhaps this list of competencies is unrealistic. Perhaps less is expected out there in the "real world." Yet if the list of "Standards of a Competent Conservator for United Kingdom Institute of Conservation Accreditation" is consulted, then we have only just begun our enumeration. There, 46 lengthy descriptions of the requisite "skills, knowledge, and behavior" are grouped under seven headings, ranging from preventive conservation through management to "professional contribution." Expectations verge on the impossible: from demonstrating how to "remove, reduce, or neutralize potential and active" deterioration, to "cost-benefit analysis," to keeping "up-to-date with the content and scope of new legislation," to regularly assessing the "content and effectiveness of training" provision.
What is the administrative infrastructure that requires such universal competence? A vacuum? Little wonder that educators have responded with some desperation, constantly expanding the curriculum and demanding more and more of students, who are increasingly baffled by what precisely this intensive training will eventually equip them for, and who wonder how the presently nebulous career structure will resolve itself.
Is there such a thing as career structure in conservation? In museums, perhaps. But a vast amount of conservation takes place in other contexts, where the administrative structures that define the conservation process are less developed, more ephemeral, and more likely to be project-based than long-term. This means that the definition of the competencies required is likely to be more vague and mutable, varying with the specific legal context and with the previous experience of those ultimately responsible. Hence the persistent efforts at accreditation to try to objectify the nature of competency and the avenues to recognize it.
So we have come full circle, since accreditation requires defining a conservator. This has been attempted, but not very successfully, and the reason is simple: the increasing complexity and, indeed, professionalism of conservation means that it can no longer be encompassed by a single individual or, consequently, by a single educational path. Each of the newly complex aspects of the expanded conservation process has spawned its own specialists. The most obvious are managers, conservation scientists, and "documentarists," but there are also those who specialize in preventive conservation, risk assessment, and imaging, for example.
This situation is an artifact of the ad hoc development of conservation, in which subject matter expertise dominated, and it is partly due to the fact that conservation is not a discipline but, rather, a hybrid—or hydra—that we rightly call multidisciplinary. Because it is multidisciplinary, it does not slot neatly into the classical structure of higher education, and it is still far too small— in all senses—to form a new discipline. It therefore loses out. It loses out particularly on funding. Since conservation training is very expensive, this is a serious problem. It also loses out on attracting students. Even now, a surprising number of applicants discover conservation remarkably late, often after a bout of job dissatisfaction. Job satisfaction—rather than career structure, adequate status, or remuneration—remains the primary lure. Even in the aftermath of the 1980s, conservation still attracts those who consider it paramount that what they do be worthwhile.
Response of Educators
During these decades of whirlwind change, in which conservation has dramatically reinvented itself, how have educators responded? In Italy and Germany, conservation training has become a virtual industry, with a handful of stellar programs in each country. In England, as well, there has been an explosion in the number of courses at every level and with every permutation of qualification on offer. There is no overall planning of this, merely what the market— the immediate student market—will bear. Moreover, there is a growing nationalist, and even regionalist (one thinks of the German Länder), preference for local training and a consequent overprovision and dilution of scarce resources.
Is all this worrying? Yes, because there is no consensus on professional standards by which to assess the "products" of these training initiatives, no objective assessment of the quality of the education. Nor can the employment market (the current default mechanism) act as an efficient natural selection tool. In that niche, survival of the fittest may well not prove best for conservation. We do not let market forces determine if doctors, lawyers, or even plumbers are qualified.
Another educational response has been to offer some variety to potential employers by carving the bursting curriculum pie into more manageable bites—with the useful spin-off of attracting yet more students. But if we train "technicians" or restrict the curriculum to "principles of conservation," what is the mechanism to ensure that the constraints on the education provided are translated into constraints on the presumed competency of the prospective employee? Courses have reputations—they develop slowly and, importantly, erode slowly—but as a profession, surely we have outgrown reliance on word of mouth.
The proliferation and fragmentation of educational provision is reflected in the ICCROM-GCI Training Directory, with well over three hundred entries. Just assembling and disseminating this information is an achievement, so it may seem churlish to ask for yet more, such as an electronic forum for information exchange on training issues. In addition, some comparative assessment of the training provision would be helpful; of the three hundred odd courses listed in the directory, some are five years long, while others are one day.
While the wider profession grapples with these seemingly insoluble inherent structural challenges, educators doggedly press on, preoccupied with more immediate—and often more soluble—issues. As we plunge optimistically into the new century, it is an auspicious time to reflect on these, and this publication is an appropriate forum, given the GCI's role in conservation education globally. The Institute's achievements encompass not only direct training (including a contribution to continuing professional development) but also initiatives in teacher training and curriculum development, as well as a lamentably brief flirtation with developing didactic materials. The legacy of these contributions resonates throughout conservation education. But there is more to do, much of it relating to promoting more effective collaboration between educators and the conservation profession.
Toward Cooperative Solutions
The educational dilemma of producing conservators for a rapidly changing profession will not go away. Nor will the diversity of the administrative infrastructure. What, then, can we do to improve the match between educational provision and professional practice? Cooperative solutions should involve joint initiatives by the profession and the educational establishment to ensure competency. Ultimately, this must mean accreditation—accreditation that is rigorous, competency specific, and, importantly, periodically revalidated. Grasping that thorn has been painful and thus far controversial. It is likely to be some considerable time until, as a profession, we have the critical mass necessary to make a success of it.
In the meantime, we could improve the current situation by communicating better about the competencies furnished through education and those required by professional practice. Educators should contribute to this dialogue by explicitly defining their products, clearly circumscribing the range and levels of skills of graduates. Although this may seem obvious, unrealistic assumptions are often made by prospective employers. In its turn, the profession should be rigorous in defining the competencies required and in ensuring that they are met. Outside of the museum sector—where adequate control mechanisms already exist—this process of defining and screening is particularly critical.
oint initiatives should extend to the educational process itself. These should apply to the initial period of formal training, as well as to what used to be called "midcareer training" but now is fashionable to denote as "continuing professional development." Such initiatives are the most effective way of ensuring the desired match between educational provision and professional practice. And collaboration between educators and conservation professionals brings considerable mutual benefit.
For primary training, the most obvious areas to exploit for mutual benefit are research and practical training. Remarkably, students do a significant proportion of conservation research, but their efforts are severely hampered by lack of access to equipment and funding. As a profession, we rely heavily on this research, yet inadequately provide for it. Research internships are urgently needed. By contrast, there is a long tradition of offering museum internships for practical work—internships that have evolved from the bench-fodder days to today's well-structured affairs. Similar provision is urgently required for site-based conservation.
Continuing professional development presents particular challenges in the face of rapid evolution. Conservators in institutional contexts have some opportunities, but for those in private practice, it is particularly problematic. Although there is some course provision, it is inadequate, and it is difficult for ill-paid conservators to find the necessary time or funding. Professional training programs should be looking for ways to provide regular updating, but they lack the resources—nor is it their sole responsibility. As in all other respects, ensuring appropriate education is the joint responsibility of educators and the profession. Only through active cooperation will satisfactory solutions be found.
In 1985, Sharon Cather helped establish the Courtauld Institute's Conservation of Wall Painting Department, where she teaches the postgraduate course and supervises conservation research and fieldwork programs in Cyprus, Malta, and elsewhere. Her publications include The Conservation of Wall Paintings, Early Medieval Wall Painting, and Drawings by Bernini. A Fellow of IIC, the Society of Antiquaries, and the American Academy, she is currently involved in consultative and collaborative projects in Germany, Greece, Israel, and Italy.