A Fine Balance: Presenting Conservation to the Public
In the conservation field’s struggle to become more visible and better understood by the general public, there exist some difficulties in how to present the profession to the layperson. It seems that museums may be the key to this dilemma. Museums are often viewed as places for learning and offer the perfect venue for seeing the end results of conservation. Examples of museums that have made attempts to give visitors a glimpse of how conservators stabilize and prepare objects for display and how the museum environment is specially designed and maintained to ensure the objects’ well-being include:
- The North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, NC
- The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, VA
- The DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum in Williamsburg, VA
- Biltmore Estates in Asheville, NC
The discussions of conservation in each of the museums above exhibit a variety of methods of attracting the public’s attention and eliciting thought about conservation. It seems that the three most effective devices by which museums can present conservation to the public are making the information accessible to the viewer, offering concrete and hands-on examples, and cutting romantic stereotypes of the field.
That conservation is a very technical field with its own extensive set of jargon is undeniable, and presenting the key concepts and techniques to the layperson in an intelligible way is a sizeable task. Nonetheless, museums should strive to unpack the language and ideas for the average person. Adding layers of information that go from simple to more complex might be a good way of adding detail and complexity for viewers who want more information or detail about a certain idea or technique. Having trained “facilitators” that can discuss elements of the exhibit in more detail or give out bibliographies for further research might also be an effective way of deepening the subject for those that are interested and not overwhelming those who are not interested in more detail (Podany and Maish 1993, 102).
In addition to making the ideas easy to understand, having concrete examples and hands-on activities may help to reinforce the main message of a certain part of the exhibit, as well as engage visitors who are otherwise not attracted to reading. In their exhibition, entitled Preserving the Past, Jerry Podany and Susan Lansing Maish included interactive opportunities for visitors. One such hands-on activity invited visitors to reassemble broken pottery sherds and then identify the vessel from a chart of Greek vessel shapes (Podany and Maish 1993, 104). Such interactive opportunities allow the public to experience some of the techniques used in conservation, and may excite the interest of more visitors.
Hands-on opportunities that allow the viewer to follow the step by step procedure to conserving artifacts may also work to dispel unrealistic and romantic perceptions of conservation. Indeed, simplifying language for the layperson sometimes leads the exhibit creator to draw analogies between the conservator and the noble doctor, or present before and after photographs that may give the public a false notion about the realities of conservation (Podany and Maish 1993, 105). While sometimes attractive, the romantic view of conservation tends to lead the public to think that the conservator’s job is to swoop in and permanently save objects from certain deterioration. This perception tends to lead discourse away from the sometimes mundane reality of the field and the ideas of reversibility and minimal intervention, which are the main tenets of conservation.
Although it may seem that any public education about conservation is good, there are certainly pitfalls that can lead the public to misunderstand the field. Pitfalls may be avoided by making information accessible to the visitor, offering hands-on activities, and by dispensing of romantic notions of conservation. While these extra steps may increase the expense of creating and running exhibitions focusing on conservation, it is well worth the cost because a public that is better informed about the importance and realities of conservation is a public that is better prepared and more willing to fund conservation projects in the future.
Podany, J.C. and S.L. Maish. 1993. Can the Complex Be Made Simple? Informing the Public about Conservation through Museum Exhibits. Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 32(2): 101-108.