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Dr Christian Baars

Dr Christian Baars, Senior Preventive Conservator, National Museums Cardiff
Linking Past and Future, the 18thtriennial conference of ICOM-CC 

ICOM-CC has almost 3,000 members worldwide from every branch of the museum and conservation profession. These members promote the conservation of cultural and historic works. The conference was held in Copenhagen, Denmark, and was attended by more than one thousand conservators from all over the world. Hundreds of talks were programmed in five parallel sessions, in addition to various specialist working group meetings, technical visits, opportunities to see Copenhagen’s museums and social events.

It was my first major international conservation conference and I co-presented a paper with my colleague Jane Henderson from Cardiff University on new ways of presenting conservation data. Conservation is a data-heavy discipline, and our suggestion was to present results of data collection not simply in the all too ubiquitous bar charts and line graphs, but to use more meaningful visualisations that are easier to interpret and send the correct message to the receiver. This will help make quicker and better decisions and ultimately improve the care of collections.

After the presentation I spent most of the day answering questions from, and discussing ideas with, colleagues who came up to me throughout the course of the day and wanted to continue talking about the theme of the presentation. It appears that we managed to discuss a subject that is on many people’s minds. As a result, I came home with the feeling that we had been working on something worthwhile which helped many people. In addition, I received a number of suggestions, for example to a new software (Tableau) which I had not been aware.

The data theme, which forms a large part of my job, continued at the conference, for example with a talk by UCL on how data mining of existing data sets can explain unexpected patterns in a way that cannot be captured by experimental studies. The results then lead to improved decision making about care of collections. Similarly, the use of risk assessments – an important tool in preventive conservation – is based on both data and value estimations. One talk by Museum Victoria explained how the deterioration of an object does not always mean a loss. Hence, when attempting to judge value loss, judgments must be made by experts from different fields. The potential value loss of an object needs to be considered when undertaking a risk assessment that might want to predict the estimated deterioration of that object in, say, 100 years. The colleague from Museum Victoria who presented the talk is also travelling to the UK in the next two weeks and I managed to invite her to give her talk at National Museum Cardiff while she is here to enable my colleagues at the museum to benefit directly from her expertise.

This is immediately relevant to my work at National Museum Cardiff, where we are currently trying to assess the risks involved in improving micro environmental storage across three different collections. This involves risk assessments, experimental work and cost-benefit analyses. I will therefore be able to apply in Cardiff much of what I learned in Copenhagen about these areas.

In addition, I am currently trying to improve collection environments in Cardiff while at the same time reducing energy consumption. One other theme at the conference was the issue of low energy collections storage, where Danish museums, in particular, have considerable experience. Lise Raeder Knudsen from Conservation Centre Vejle summarised almost 30 years of experience of building low energy collection stores in Denmark. The main principle of such stores is high thermal and hydric inertia. The Danish cultural sector has proven that such stores can have both lower construction and running costs, while at the same time producing a stable environment suitable for the long-term storage of cultural collections. One issue currently still undergoing research is the potential problem of indoor pollutants which may accumulate if there is insufficient fresh air supply. We are in the early stages in Cardiff of planning a new collections store for our natural science collections, and I am now able to bring the Danish experience to the planning table.

There were many more examples of how the experience of others has been hugely stimulating. For example, a conversation following a presentation by the British Museum on training and succession planning opened up a discussion between myself and the National Trust on potential joint staff training which we are currently following up on.

Overall, I feel that my attendance at the conference will be of enormous benefit to the way I work, and ultimately my museum. I managed to connect with colleagues I only knew over the internet and learn about new or more efficient ways of working. In addition, the atmosphere at the conference was overwhelmingly positive, which is something I carried back home with me and am now already tackling various project with enhanced motivation and energy. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity the grant by the Anna Plowden Trust has given me.