Are we following the wrong rules? Part 1

by Anna Rose Keefe

I enjoy rules. Navigating conservation work during a pandemic has been difficult, and when I’m unsure about the stability of my position and/or this field, I like to reassure myself that I am in the correct place, at the assigned time, doing the work with which I have been tasked. Having a set of guidelines gives me a place to start, and cuts down on the burdens of uncertainty.

When we were sent home at the start of the pandemic (a time of great uncertainty!) my colleagues and I began revising the conservation section of our collections management policy. We were able to work on this safely at home, but with some distance from the daily hustle, this core document felt alien to me. Our work, as it was presented in the policy, had no room for nuance or compromise. Instead, it reflected an artificially aspirational idea of best practices and total control. The rules for access and engagement sounded like they came from a different planet than the statements of inclusion that appeared on the Museum’s website.

For example, our handling guide gives a work-study student in their first semester more freedom to flip over textiles and explore the insides of garments than a visiting stakeholder with a wealth of knowledge about material and construction. We encourage students and community members to engage and build new connections with the collection but are held accountable to a policy that tries to limit and micromanage new interactions. We’ve hosted programs and recently published an interview with Vanessa Jennings, a Kiowa bead-worker who repaired a cradleboard from her family line that’s now in a local collection.  This was an amazing project, but it’s a violation of our policies which state that treatment may only be done by conservators or students who are training to become conservators.”

To be clear, no one is trying to prevent projects like that one from happening. They receive a lot of positive encouragement and publicity from the institution. Similarly, I see more projects that foreground access getting published in JAIC and awarded at conferences. But our current codes of ethics and ideas of best practices have very little space for growth. We have created a double-bind, conservators are responsible for creating and upholding rules for care, but we must also bend and break those rules if we are to work inclusively and responsibly.

This got me thinking: are we happy with a framework that doesn’t allow for new and exciting projects to be included in what is considered conservation? If I have to break my own rules all the time in order to do my job, then are those rules inherently broken? I can appreciate how our codes protect us from censure and control chaos. I can appreciate that museums are impossible to insure and that insurance companies put pressure on institutions to maintain strict control. I can appreciate that many potential disasters have been averted by our current codes, however, I think we have caused a great deal of damage by cutting off collections from everyone but the specific few. 

I believe that objects matter because they matter to people, and our rules need to be designed around that fact. We don’t work in a vacuum, we’re people in a system designed by other people. We need to see community as a vital and enriching part of collections care and not as something unruly that needs to be controlled. Right now, the rules we’re following don’t serve our goals, it’s time for us to build something better.

Author bio

Anna Rose Keefe is passionate about textiles, design, and collaborative conservation work. She works at the RISD Museum as a textile conservation assistant, where she focuses on facilitating access and caring for the collection. She co-teaches Introduction to Textile Conservation with Jess Urick, and Inherent Vice: Experimental Research Studio in the Textiles Department at RISD. She holds an MS in Textile Conservation from the University of Rhode Island, and a BA in Material Culture from Mount Holyoke College. Anna Rose recently curated the exhibition Lost in the Museum (RISDM 2018 – 2019), co-curated Inherent Vice (RISDM 2022), and published “Museum Storage is Not an Icebox” (Museum International, 2021).

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