I went to the annual conference of the Canadian Association for Conservation (CAC) this year, as I try to do every year. It is held in late spring in a different location in Canada, alternating between different regions of the country. It is not a large conference, with attendance ranging from 70 or so in the smaller cities, to about 150 or even 200 in larger cities such as Toronto. This is because there are not a huge number of conservators in Canada; we are quite a small profession.
Why do professional associations, or any group for that matter, hold conferences? Aren’t they just an excuse to travel somewhere exotic on the corporate or government dime, and drink wine?
Well, no. Conservators have been compared to doctors; the way we care for objects has many similarities to the way doctors care for people. We “operate” (perform treatments) on objects to repair damage that has been done. We also spend a lot of time advising on preventive measures that will keep objects “healthy”; as in human health, prevention is the most important consideration, to prevent or mitigate damage or deterioration. There are also, as in medicine, many scientists working with practitioners (the conservators) to identify needed areas of research, to add to the body of knowledge in our areas of work. New information is always being discovered, as in medicine. That is why we have professional journals, and why we hold conferences.
I’ve been to many conferences over the years I’ve been a conservator. I find that I always learn something, and I always come back to work rejuvenated, with my enthusiasm for my job renewed. Working in cultural heritage in Canada can make one feel fairly isolated. I don’t have that much contact with the general public; I work in a medium-size museum, so I have a lot of museum colleagues, but not that many fellow conservators to talk to. There just aren’t that many of us.
Going to a different Canadian city every year, getting to see different museums, with their great collections, but also challenging situations, is wonderful. However, the best thing about going to professional conferences, for me, is the face to face contact with people. I can read someone’s article in a journal, but to talk to them in person just can’t be replaced. I learn about new conservation treatments, the latest research, shared problems, and the overall mood of the profession. I catch the giant enthusiasm of new graduates.
I personally am able to pay to attend CAC conferences out of my pocket, but I also try to support the attendance of another conservator from the Museum out of departmental budgets, with grant assistance, whenever possible. This is because I firmly believe in the value of professional development, and especially the value of professional conferences.