Reflecting on the Past and Imagining the Future at the American Institute for Conservation’s 50th Annual Meeting

The following is a post by Cindy Connelly Ryan, Preservation Science Specialist in the Preservation Research and Testing Division.

In mid-May I traveled to Los Angeles for the 50th annual meeting of the American Institute for Conservation (AIC), held in-person for the first time since 2019, with some sessions also live-streamed.  Many attendees expressed tangible delight in being able to reconnect with colleagues in person, lingering long over breaks in the exhibit hall and in the hallways when moving between sessions.  I’ll admit that between the still-widespread use of face masks and two years of extended telework eroding my social skills, I was more grateful than EVER for name tags!

As a cultural heritage conservation scientist, the main draw of the AIC conference for me is always the Research and Technical Studies (RATS) specialty group sessions. This year’s conference marked the 30th anniversary of the group’s formation. The session fittingly began with a review of the group’s initial formation, presented by co-founders Mary Striegel and Chandra Reedy, and the goal of improving communication and collaboration between conservators and scientists.  Their talk had a lightning review of programming, projects, and outreach activities over the years, concluding with an open-ended ‘where to next?’

And there was cake!

White sheet cake with red icing message “Congrats to RATS on 30 Great Years”, decorated with red icing roses and green vines.

EPIC chocolate cake! Photo Credit: Cindy Connelly Ryan

The overall conference program showed that scientific tools and techniques have indeed permeated widely and deeply into conservation practice since RATS’ inception. Sophisticated analytical studies of materials and fabrication methods were found across all the specialty groups’ sessions, from paintings and textiles to objects and collections care. This reflects both a more frequent use of instrumental analysis in treatment planning, and also the growing use of technical studies linking materiality to art history in the interpretation of artists and artifacts. Similarly, data science-specific talks and data science content (A.I., chemometrics, linked data) were found across all the conference sessions, illustrating the diffusion of complex data tools into diverse applications in our field.

The second and third RATS session papers underscored this spread of instrumental analysis from purely conservation-science contexts into integrated studies. The second talk reported findings from an instrument access survey, which found quite a high percentage of conservators have access to multiple analytical methods in–lab or elsewhere in their institution, most commonly various microscopy and technical imaging modalities, followed by XRF (x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy), but often much more extensive lists.  This was particularly true in academic-linked studios and larger institutions. The third talk introduced a newly established e-journal, Materia, dedicated to technical studies in the fine arts, integrating curatorial and material interpretations.

Fenella France speaking at a podium, with slides visible to her right.

Fenella France presenting in the Collections Care session. Photo Credit: Cindy Connelly Ryan

Being a milestone anniversary, this year’s conference theme “Reflecting on the Past, Imagining the Future” invited talks on history or changing trends within the specialty groups, of particular techniques, or evolving attitudes on a topic.  Overall I saw far more thought-pieces this year than usual, and fewer treatment case studies, analytical studies, or research reports. This was partly intentional, as the general session theme and the expanded concurrent general session themes encouraged this perspective. But it seems that the lengthy building closures at many institutions were a factor as well, if nothing else by providing extra time to reflect and write. The conference content was certainly not limited to looking backwards, of course; some exciting talks discussed emerging new materials and techniques, such as uses of microbial cellulose in paper conservation, exploring the use of UV-C light for mold remediation, and cultural heritage applications of recently developed portable LIBS (laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy) instruments.

The Library’s Preservation Directorate was well represented at the conference, as usual.  Preservation Research and Testing Division (PRTD) Chief Fenella France spoke on the opportunities and challenges of defining common vocabulary in Linked Open Data projects and the development of a ‘visual vocabulary’ of condition terminology to support the Assessment of the National Collection project. I shared key findings from our study of hand sanitizers’ immediate and long-term impact on collection materials, which we concluded just before our reading rooms re-opened to researchers.

We got a very nice comment from AIC e-editor Rachael Arenstein:

When PRTD stops coming to AIC with new and different research topics, then we’ll know something is wrong.

Busy conference scene showing Cindy Connelly Ryan discussing her poster with a conference attendee.

Cindy Connelly Ryan answering questions during the poster session. Photo Credit: Fenella France

Outgoing Collections Stabilization Section Head Nancy Lev-Alexander gave a thoughtful overview of how strategies for safeguarding collections at the Library of Congress have evolved with changes over the years in access, storage, and display. Conservators Katherine Kelly and Dan Paterson’s poster on the history, use, and identification of brain-tanned leather in book binding drew a great deal of interest. Paper Conservation Section Head Yasmeen Khan participated in a panel session on 19th century varnished wall maps, and I spotted several talks and posters by current and former Preservation interns and fellows.

Our external partnerships were also represented. The two Tyndall Fellows from the Inks and Skins project presented findings from the technical study of the late 14th century Book of Uí Mhaine. PRTD is a research partner on this project, which marks the first application of materials analysis to late medieval Gaelic manuscripts.  The talk generated a lively discussion of ink recipes and ink analysis in the RATS session, and Veronica Biolcati and I were finally able to meet in person after over a year of zoom sessions discussing minutiae of x-ray data interpretation!

Inks and Skins team members: Fenella France, Veronica Biolcati, Anna Hoffman, Cindy Connelly Ryan.

Inks and Skins team meetup: Fenella France, Veronica Biolcati, Anna Hoffman, Cindy Connelly Ryan. Photo Credit: Suzanne Siano

One topic for further thought in ‘Imagining the Future’ is whether future AIC meetings will continue to offer the hybrid in-person/virtual structure. Many scientific organizations that shifted to virtual conferences rather than cancelling their meetings in 2020 and 2021 found that this expanded participation significantly. Eliminating the time and expense of travel is eco-friendly, and reduces barriers to participation by lower income members of our community, working parents, persons with physical disabilities, and participants from overseas. This year’s in-person attendance was strong, comparable to a ‘good’ prior year, with the additional virtual cohort making the overall reach of the meeting greater. Although it’s extra work to support a hybrid event, I hope that this will be possible for AIC to sustain. Traveling to the conference did remind me of the positive aspects of in-person gatherings, but also the stresses of a multi-day absence from home. (My cats were VERY disappointed in me).

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