The Conservator’s Reflection: IIC 2019 Student & Emerging Conservator Conference

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Publikum während der Podiumsdiskussion (Image: TH Köln - CICS - LOC - David Bijan Andree)

By Catarina Rocha Pires

The 5th IIC Student & Emerging Conservator Conference (IIC-SECC) was held at the Cologne Institute of Conservation Sciences (CICS, TH Köln) between the 12th and 14th of September 2019. Previous editions of the conference series took place in London (2011), Copenhagen (2013), Warsaw (2015) and Bern (2017).

Organized by a committee of 11 local students (led by Mariana Escamilla and Charlotte Hoffmann) with the help of the CICS Committee (Professor Ester S. B. Ferreira and Professor Gunnar Heydenreich), the 3-day conference included the attendance of 89 students and emerging conservators from 24 different countries (including Colombia, Russia, Lithuania, Portugal, Spain, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Australia, Norway, the United States of America, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Mexico) and 15 professionals who shared their interesting experiences and journeys in the world of conservation. Besides those physically present, over 200 people followed the conference livestream on YouTube and on the IIC Community platform; universities from Mexico, Colombia and Italy also registered to participate online.

With the appealing title of “The Conservator’s Reflection”, the conference was divided into 3 sessions with very interesting talks and discussions. The round-table format, used in the previous conferences, was once again a successful inclusion in this year’s conference, enabling open and engaging debates between the attendees and speakers. The conference was complemented with guided tours at some of Cologne’s cultural institutions and monuments, including the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Corboud Foundation and the Museum Ludwig. Also included were visits to the conservation studios and workrooms at the CICS where some of the local students presented their current conservation projects and research.

The conference opened with introductory words from Professor Dr. Klaus Becker (vice president of TH Köln) and Professor Adrian Heritage (one of the 3 directors of the CICS) who presented on the TH Köln and the CICS, emphasizing the latter’s focus on scientific research in the conservation of art and cultural heritage and the profession’s wide range of specializations. Professor Heritage’s speech pointed to some of the topics to be discussed later in the conference, such as how the conservation profession is—and will always be—shaped by society and its developments and the fact that there is still a lot of work to be done to get the profession justly recognized. The last opening speeches were done by IIC President Julian Bickersteth, who described some of the significant work done by the IIC and highlighted the importance of reflecting on authenticity, and Anne Harmssen, member of the VDR (German Association of Restorers) executive board, who shared a glimpse of her professional experience and highlighted the importance of each individual being connected to and getting involved in professional associations of conservators/restorers.

The first session, “Conservator meets conservator”, was moderated by Professor Gunnar Heydenreich (TH Köln) and focused on the self-perception of conservation professionals, their motivation to enter the field and their career development. In addition, all the presenters were invited to reflect on what they believe to be the most crucial abilities and soft skills for a conservator to develop with respect to the ever-changing market demand and the relevance of interdisciplinary work. Experienced and accomplished professionals Professor Erma Hermens (Rijksmuseum professor of studio practice and technical art history at the University of Amsterdam and senior researcher in technical art history at the Rijksmuseum), Gwendolyn Boevé-Jones (founder and director of the Studio Redivivus and Dividi Foundation in The Hague, NL), Julian Bickersteth (president of the IIC) and Thomas Gdanitz (MA student at the University of Applied Sciences in Potsdam and freelance stone conservator) gave short statements on their career paths as practicing conservators and researchers, mentioning some challenges they have encountered, and gave key advice to emerging conservators.

Professor Hermens reflected, among other interesting topics, on the importance of having been a practicing paintings conservator for many years before focusing on research and lecturing at university. Boevé-Jones, on the other hand, mentioned how important it was for her to have role models in conservation who advised her and kept her on the right path to becoming a successful conservator. Boevé-Jones also noted the importance of always staying active and involved in the profession by attending workshops and conferences. Bickersteth’s engaging talk emphasized the importance of getting acquainted with the key players in the conservation market and understanding conservation in its wider context. The last speaker, Thomas Gdanitz, gave very useful advice as a recent graduate already building a successful career as a stone conservator; Thomas advised students to get experience and create broad networks by doing internships and to foster a love for never-ending learning and exploration in the field.

A very interesting discussion followed with questions from the audience—those present and those watching the conference online—which covered topics such as salary and unpaid or underpaid internships, advocating for salary parity, recognition and accreditation, differences between the career paths of conservators working as freelancers or in private studios and those working in public institutions, and university conservation programmes’ curricula.

The second panel session “Conservator meets institutions”, moderated by Professor Ester Ferreira (professor at the TH Köln), dealt with the positioning of the conservation profession within institutions and museums and ways in which to promote the profession and present it to the public. Iris Schaefer (head of the art technology and conservation department at the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud, Cologne), Sarah Staniforth (IIC president emeritus), Joanna Phillips (Restaurierungszentrum Düsseldorf) and Vanessa Schmitt (student, TH Köln) were the invited speakers.

Shaefer started her talk by explaining how the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum works, how the conservation department is included in the Museum and which are the most significant tasks of that department inside the Museum. Staniforth, on the other hand, shared with the very interested audience her career development and how she got to where she is now, mentioning the importance of multidisciplinary teamwork and self-reflection. Philips also shared her career development in time-based media conservation and reflected on the importance of cross-field work between conservators, art historians and conservation scientists as well as curators, exhibition designers and technicians among others. At the end of her talk, Philips gave the attendees some practical advice: “be vocal, be seen, be heard, share, publish and communicate what you do (…), own your public speaking skills, forge alliances not just within your institutions but with other institutions and other disciplines (…), insist that your work is properly credited (…), engage in art technology and science research…”. The last speaker of the session, Vanessa Schmitt, talked about her experience as a freelance textiles conservator with a bachelor’s degree and as a master’s student; Vanessa explained how she manages to combine both activities and how student freelancers are perceived in the institutions employing them.

The following discussion focused on the importance of polite negotiation; the exchange of ideas; and clear communication not only between conservators but also with all the other teams involved, especially inside a museum. The next topic focused on the hierarchization that is sometimes visible between different conservation specialties (paintings, textiles, ceramics, etc.) and that between conservation and other professional fields (particularly curatorship) within a museum, as well as how this hierarchy can be overcome. The importance of research projects inside museums and institutions, to promote the conservation sector and enhance the profile of the conservator, was also mentioned.

The third session, “Conservator meets the general public”, moderated by Amber Kerr (chief conservator at the Lunder Conservation Center/Smithsonian American Art Museum and IIC vice-president), focused on the image of the conservator in the public eye and how the profession can be presented and advertised to the general public. The session opened with talks by Professor Hilkka Hiiop (professor at the Estonian Academy of Art), Petria Noble (head of paintings conservation at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), Ralph-Uwe Johann (managing director of Deffner & Johann) and Isa von Lenthe (fellow at the Stichting Restauratie Atelier Limburg in Maastricht).

Before introducing the session’s speakers, Kerr talked about her experience working at the Lunder Conservation Center, the first visible conservation laboratory with floor-to-ceiling glass walls that allow museum visitors to see the conservators examining, treating and preserving artworks. Professor Hiiop shared two different large-scale projects she coordinated and worked on as a researcher–the “Rode Altarpiece in Close-up” (2013-2016) and “Christian Ackermann-Tallinn’s Pheidias, Arrogant and Talented” (2016-2020). Both projects placed great emphasis on sharing with the general public, making the on-site conservation work accessible to visitors and developing school and community programmes. Both projects were also featured in workshops, international conferences and public websites where the main outcomes of the projects were published (including videos, 3D-models and images resulting from examination techniques used).

Noble started her inspiring talk by summarizing her career path and the importance of research work in her professional development. The main focus of Noble’s talk was the “Operation Night Watch”, currently taking place in the galleries of the Rijksmuseum, an ongoing project that aims to study Rembrandt’s masterpiece in depth and, based on the results of the research phase, carry out the required conservation treatment. The relevance of the project to this session rests on the fact that every step of the process is being shared with the public; on-site and online every interested visitor can witness the work of the conservators, scientists, curators and photographers inside the glass chamber built around the painting in the Museum galleries.

The third speaker, Ralph-Uwe Johann, not only shared his experience managing an over-135-year-old company supplying materials and equipment for conservation and restoration, but also gave some meaningful advice on public speaking and knowledge sharing, two increasingly essential skills for conservators. The last speaker of the conference was Isa von Lenthe, a recent graduate and emerging conservator who is also the coordinator of the IIC Instagram account. Von Lenthe’s stimulating talk focused on the role of social media in promoting and representing the conservation field and opened a reflection on the advantages, drawbacks and risks of being in the public eye.

A discussion followed on how to promote the profession on social media and what kind of content should be shared with the public and in what ways. The speakers reflected on the difficult task of finding the balance between simplifying complex information and using technical terminology to ensure that the general public can understand it without oversimplifying and reducing the work being shared. Another topic discussed relates to the importance of carefully choosing images to be shared with the public, not only considering the copyright of the depicted objects, but also the safety of the treatments, the handling of objects, etc. represented in those images. The last discussion of the conference also reflected on educating the public about conservation and the positive feedback often received when the information is properly shared.

The IIC-SECC conferences have been gathering conservation students, emerging conservators and conservation professionals from all over the world for the past eight years. There is no doubt that these conferences not only provide a great way to connect and grow a broader network with fellow conservators, but also create space to share ideas, discuss relevant topics and gain advice from experienced professionals who are happy to share their experiences and career paths. Attending the IIC-SECC conferences is already a big step forward in understanding the profession’s peculiarities and in entering the world of conservation.

For more information about the IIC-SECC conferences, please visit:

All the mentioned sessions, as well as those from past IIC-SECC conferences, are available on YouTube:


Catarina Rocha Pires received her bachelor’s degree in conservation and restoration from the Faculty of Sciences and Technology of the NOVA University of Lisbon in 2017. She is currently working on her master’s thesis project while doing an internship at the Stichting Restauratie Atelier Limburg (SRAL) in Maastricht, The Netherlands.

(For the full story, download the December 2019 issue of "News in Consevation.")

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With the appealing title of “The Conservator’s Reflection”, the conference was divided into 3 sessions with very interesting talks and discussions. The round-table format, used in the previous conferences, was once again a successful inclusion in this year’s conference, enabling open and engaging debates between the attendees and speakers.
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