Are we working from a foundation of fear? Part 2

by Natalya Swanson

I want to tell you a story about a friend and colleague, an excellent conservator, who attempted to negotiate and was told they were too “inflexible” for the job. The offer, which was already well below their worth, was rescinded. I want to tell you the situational details that resulted in them being jobless: the shifting power dynamics within an understaffed institution; the nebulous finances strained by the COVID-19 pandemic; the “People Team” staff hailing from corporate culture who do not understand the scarcity of jobs offering unreasonably low wages; the role of the well-intentioned hiring manager with too much power and not enough training. Unfortunately, I cannot tell you this story because the professional in question fears retaliation. They feel indebted to someone who was unable to protect them to begin with. I empathize with this friend and their hesitation to speak out because nepotism thrives in the heritage sector. 

All of us rely on someone in a position of power to make gains. At the same time, most fear this person and the unspoken consequences if they “mess up”. I could tell you a story of a coworker whose career was upended by a supervisor with a grudge, of an emerging conservator who denigrates their writing style because they haven’t yet learned conservation jargon, of a colleague who champions for the labor movement in secret since they fear losing their job if management finds out. I could tell you, but most likely you already know someone who has experienced something retaliatory, insensitive, and unreasonable firsthand. I want to tell you these stories so we can discuss where things went wrong and how we can do better moving forward. More than this, I want to create a community where others feel comfortable telling their own story. 

How do we do this? What actions are necessary to uproot fear? To bolster trust in ourselves and fellow workers? How can we create a community that thrives off honest and open communication? Where we are driven by compassion and not competition? Perhaps we can begin by acknowledging how emotions affect our decision making. 

In the second blog post of this series, Sarah Scaturro writes how “conservators love conservation,” and while I think this is an admirable testament to the profession, I can’t help but wonder about the implications of this type of emotional attachment. What has love blinded us to? Have we taken steps to consider our non-negotiables or set reasonable and healthy boundaries as if we were in a loving partnership? 

Thinking about heritage work in the context of emotions is complicated, and we’ll need to grapple with many challenges to create a compassion-driven community. We need not reinvent the wheel though- we can utilize resources developed in psychology and social work to help us increase self-awareness, which in turn will help us realize where we have power and where we can initiate change. My therapist recently recommended that I note my emotions throughout the day: what am I feeling and under what conditions the emotion(s) arose. I wonder if this exercise could help heritage workers ease into the idea of subjectivity, help us acknowledge how our preferences/biases and lived experiences affect how we approach collection items and each other. Perhaps it can help us understand where we are starting from, so when we devise strategies to navigate and upend systems that thrive on fear, we can do so with self-awareness and humility. 

Author bio

Natalya Swanson (she/her) is a heritage conservator, community organizer, and educator based in Brooklyn, NY and San Francisco, CA. She is academically trained in art history and conservation and has worked for museums, artist-endowed foundations, universities, galleries, and private businesses, including the Brooklyn Museum, Cleveland Museum of Art, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, Ringling Museum, and the University of Amsterdam. She co-hosted two seasons of the podcast Conservators Combating Climate Change and will soon launch a new podcast, The Ethics of Caring, which will be hosted on Her current research focuses on creating a sustainable community guided by social justice values.

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