By Adam M. Klups
On 15 April 2019 I got back home from work quite late. I pottered around for a bit and planned to cook dinner. In my head I was compiling a list of suitable case studies to use during workshops, which I was invited to deliver the following week in Serock, Poland, for secondary school students from the Polish Children’s Fund (Krajowy Fundusz na rzecz Dzieci). My working title was: ‘’Why does cultural heritage matter?’’, and I was really looking forward to the challenge ahead. I was curious to see how fruitful my interaction with the students would prove and interested in exploring how much these youngsters cared about cultural heritage in a world dominated by technology and social media. Do they feel influenced by heritage? Does it inspire them? And will I, a conservation professional, be able to influence their thinking with my case studies and inspire with my stories?
The Fund is an organisation absolutely unique on an international scale. Every year it offers scholarships to a few hundred bright children and teenagers from all around Poland, although these scholarships are not in the form of bursaries. Instead, gifted young people are selected and invited to attend lectures, workshops and educational camps led by renowned scholars, writers and intellectuals, as well as the Fund’s alumni—influencers of science, humanities and social sciences. These opportunities are meant to help the students, under the organisation’s care, to develop their existing passions and inspire them to explore and pursue other fields and disciplines. I personally benefited greatly from those opportunities in my school days. Now I had been invited to return as a tutor, to influence and inspire in turn.
I was thinking about what to eat when my phone flashed. ‘Notre Dame is in flames’, it read. I confess that I swore loudly. I switched the radio on and started flicking through world news websites. Unbelievable! I switched the BBC on next. Presenters were wearing black and the mood was sombre. The live coverage was interrupted by a commentary introducing the viewers to the story of 800+ years of the Cathedral’s life. ‘Is this a goodbye?’, I thought. Indeed, it felt rather funeral-like. Even if it may sound a bit over the top, I didn’t have dinner that night. I couldn’t eat. I was listening to the radio, watching television reports from around the world and kept thinking to myself that I knew exactly what I was going to use as a case study for my workshops.
Fast forward a couple of weeks; feeling rather content about my positive experience with the Fund’s students, I was back in Poland once again. This time it was thanks to the kind invitation of the Faculty of Conservation and Restoration of Works of Art of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw to deliver the second round of my trademark weekend courses, ‘Selected topics in conservation and restoration in English’. The course was designed in response to the need flagged up by students themselves during IIC’s 3rd Student and Emerging Conservators Conference, which took place in Warsaw in 2015 and has had a lot of positive influence on students, judging from the feedback. My original idea was to help students to develop a technical vocabulary for conservation and encourage them to discuss conservation in English in a stress-free and comfortable environment. By assisting students in pushing the boundaries of their own language skills, I aimed to encourage their active participation in international initiatives, conferences and other events; this is important for their professional development, as English is the leading language in the global conservation community. Over two days students discussed topics relevant to cultural heritage and conservation and learned vocabulary and expressions in English that are useful in the exploration of conservation-relevant topics and issues. They were also provided practical advice on appropriate resources, where to find useful glossaries and where to seek opportunities abroad, which can all be useful to their studies, research and further professional development. A little inspiration to aim for more was offered as an extra!
Since I was keen for students to discuss a range of up-to-date conservation issues, unsurprisingly we ended up spending a chunk of our time dissecting the case of Notre Dame. A whole month had passed since the events, and there was already lots to reflect on: reactions of the public and the authorities, generous financial offers of help and first proposals of how Notre Dame should be rebuilt. We talked about the symbolic significance of Norte Dame as a monument belonging to the world and all of us and how its story will change conservation forever, regardless of which conservation philosophy and what materials will be used to rebuild it. We were in agreement that despite how tragic the fire of Norte Dame was, conservation as a discipline, and conservation professionals now face not only a great challenge but also a great opportunity.
The challenge: To carefully plan and rebuild Notre Dame in reflection of what it means to us and what we want it to stand for.
The opportunity: For the next few years—or exactly five, according to President Macron—conservation will be on everyone’s lips.
Conservation professionals will be involved in all stages of the Cathedral restoration efforts, of course. They will also be (and already have been!) interviewed. They will be commenting, educating and helping other professions to learn from the mistakes we are yet to discover. This, indeed, is a great opportunity and one that we should all take advantage of to ensure that the world eventually recognises the underappreciated role of conservation and conservation professionals in the safeguarding of cultural heritage which, as demonstrated by the recent events in Paris, is so very dear to many of us.
On my way back to the UK the second time round, while waiting for my flight, I checked Facebook. A post on one of the groups I follow reported: ‘An influencer deliberately mutilated a sculpture in one of Warsaw’s parks and shared it as an Instagram Story’. I had no words to express how I felt about this barbaric act, although comments under the post—all, without any exception, condemning—felt reassuring. ‘There is still so much to do and so many people to help understand conservation better’, I thought. I felt ready for another challenge. It occurred to me that all of us conservation professionals have a message to share and a mission to influence others…
I call on all of you conservation professionals: let us use the public spotlight on Notre Dame to educate those who still need to be told about what we do and why we do it. Let us all be advocates for, and promoters of, conservation. Let us become conservation influencers.
Adam M. Klups is the Secretary to the Diocesan Advisory Committee and Church Buildings Officer for the Diocese of Gloucester, Church of England. His role is to assist congregations in caring for their buildings by advocating effective systems for the conservation, adaptation and long-term sustainable future of historic churches. Adam has a BA in History of Art with Material Studies and an MA in Principles of Conservation, both from UCL. He is an accredited member of the Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC).