How do we enhance collaboration? Part 3

by Becky Fifield

Think about a conference you attended where everyone was feeling good about collaboration. Who was at that conference? Can we call it collaboration if we are still sitting across the table from the same people year after year, looking for answers within our own professional “best practices” and history?

It has become almost reflexive to include the term “collaborative” when talking about the preservation of cultural heritage. At the same time, professionalization in conservation has centered around a tight definition of conservator as a person who performs treatment, with member organizations focusing their structure and energies on this tightly defined constituency, classifying those who don’t perform treatment as different members, as essentially “other.” MASS Action’s Toolkit points to the pervasive nature of cultural institutions’ white, wealthy origins and leadership in sustaining legacy “norms” that create barriers to inclusion.It’s not difficult to see the outcome of these legacies among museum personnel demographics, including that of conservators. We have to encourage each other to think more broadly about who we need to partner with to disrupt exclusionary legacies and promote open collaboration, especially around ethical collections management and care.

Many of us have trained or been employed within these types of cultural institutions.  Conservators and collection professionals have often been pigeon-holed to play a prescribed role, and possibly excluded from meaningful decision-making. Feelings of professional exclusion may have led us to seek answers most comfortably among those most like ourselves. Could it be that we often value more highly what our conservation peers think, rather than seeking a more unfamiliar, but fuller complement of stakeholders and colleagues? AIC’s Code of Ethics Number 9 even sounds a concern about poor collaboration, if not a full call for inclusion of others beyond AIC membership: “The conservation professional shall act with honesty and respect in all professional relationships, seek to ensure the rights and opportunities of all individuals in the profession, and recognize the specialized knowledge of others.”

There is a lot that I am not. I am not a curator, registrar, librarian, archivist, or conservator, for that matter.2 I am surely not a facilities administrator, industrial hygienist, cultural representative, custodian, accessibility expert, mechanical engineer, educator, lighting designer, or plexi-Glas fabricator. However, I aspire to be a facilitator. This is an essential role that might be under-realized and not as celebrated in cultural preservation as it could be. Personally, some of the conservation experiences I value most are working with non-conservators, including training with New York City emergency and energy managers, designing an emergency exercise for museum facility managers, and working to produce educational content for civic volunteer organizations.

We need to actively consider in each of our tasks, “whose voice is missing?” At conferences and in virtual meetings, let’s invite new collaborators to design workshop sessions with us. In training (which can be outside formal education frameworks), let’s foster collaboration between the range of future cultural workers and stakeholders early, not wait until we are mid-career to create relationships, or mend fences. Institutions need to follow through on DEIA promises with collaborative decision-making processes, incorporating perspectives from all levels. As a personal goal, invite someone new to join you for lunch.

Think about the eventual collaboration we will have with those caring for collections after our lives have finished. As we face preservation challenges of climate change, racial injustice, economic disparity, and war, we must recognize that our yet-to-be-realized collaborators of the future will be more diverse and may not have the privileges or infrastructure we enjoy today. We can best prepare for that future by dismantling barriers to collaboration now.

[1] C. Taylor and M. Kagan. “Organizational Culture and Change: Making the Case for Inclusion” in Museum as Site for Social Action (MASS Action) Toolkit p. 34-35.

[2] I have conservator colleagues and friends who disagree about whether I am a conservator or not. I sidestep those conversations to focus on the role I play. I trained as a museum collection manager and I manage risk mitigation and preventive conservation programs for the Research Libraries of The New York Public Library.

Author bio

Becky Fifield started working in museums at age 13 at a “farm museum”, which was once a county almshouse. She didn’t like that the former residents’ stories weren’t being told.  Interested in preservation of those stories, Becky trained as a collection manager at The George Washington University. She likes bringing all sorts of people together to discuss collection stewardship, and thinks the phrase “behind the scenes” to describe collections work needs to be retired. Becky is the Associate Director, Collection Management for the Research Libraries of The New York Public Library.

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