Are we working from a foundation of fear? Part 1

by Sarah Scaturro

In 1981, the Vice-President of the American Institute for Conservation told a group of textile conservators in New York that she felt “the role of textile conservators has been somewhat problematic in AIC…[with] textile conservators not as respected as they should be by other conservators,” a reality that was caused by “a lack of knowledge of textile conservators’ work and problems.” [1]

As a doctoral student writing my dissertation on the history of textile conservation, I’ve been thinking about respect and knowledge in our field for a while. I’ve immersed myself in the field’s growth to understand how it came about, what our goals were, and how we overcame challenges. And for the most part, I’ve found an invigorating story about creativity, collaboration, and resilience. 

But there have been times when anxieties have bubbled up. For example, the statement above laid bare what many textile conservators had felt under the surface. Some worried about low pay, scarce employment opportunities, and dismal working conditions. Some were frustrated by the Sisyphean task of trying to advance the field, only to be dismissed by colleagues or potential clients as skilled needlewomen or seamstresses. And yet others cringed lest their treatments be criticized by their peers as not what they would have done.  

It’s this last point that I want to consider for a moment. A primary methodology of my research is oral history. I’ve both been reading the histories that reside in the FAIC Oral History Project and taking my own (which I’m also depositing into the Project.) What comes through in all these interviews is that conservators love conservation. The interviewees recount a field emerging through people trying to figure out what works best, at times improvising as they went along. It was both thrilling and scary. 

I’ve learned that at some of the early textile conservation meetings, more established conservators would openly denigrate colleagues about a failing in their approach or research. But a counter-effort developed, with others standing up to defend, showing that disrespect was not how to move the field forward. There were even a few conservators who presaged today’s popular “Mistakes” session by openly stating “I tried this. It didn’t work out. Let me tell you why.” Back and forth, fear oscillated with courage as the collective kept practicing, discussing, and developing our field. 

Early on in my career, I was baffled when I discovered that some conservators kept their object files locked, with even curators and other conservators having to ask to see them. I have felt frustrated by wanting to know an object’s treatment history, only to discover that the files had been removed, destroyed, or perhaps never even created. “What is it with this secrecy?” I want to shout. Doesn’t this fly in the face of the openness and sharing of knowledge that our field pushes for? Yet, the more I’ve learned about our history, the more I’ve realized how loaded the issues are, especially the insecurities caused by a lack of respect, recognition, and stability. Could I blame someone if they wanted to control how their knowledge, their efforts, and their work were used, especially if earlier experiences had stung them?

After reading so many oral histories, I’m in awe of the conservators who came before me, who hustled to establish today’s best practices and create an awareness and even a justification for our existence. They brought us to a place where we now must continue advocating for our profession, especially so that it is equitable, inclusive, and just. I remind myself daily that to keep moving the field forward, I need to operate from a place of courage, not fear. I am reminded every time I read an oral history that ever so slowly our field has strengthened as callouses developed over areas earlier worn raw. 

[1] Textile Conservation Group Newsletter, 3, no. 6 [April 1981]: pp 2-3

Word cloud of top words (4 letters or more) appearing in oral history interviews analyzed by the author.

Author bio

Sarah Scaturro is the Eric and Jane Nord Chief Conservator at the Cleveland Museum of Art and a PhD candidate at Bard Graduate Center. She was previously the head conservator of the Costume Institute, Metropolitan Museum of Art and textile conservator and assistant curator of fashion at the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. She graduated with an MA in Fashion and Textiles Studies: History, Theory, and Museum Practice from the Fashion Institute of Technology. Her dissertation traces the history of costume conservation.

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