My Favorite Years: IIC Congresses since 1970

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T-shirt from the 1978 IIC Congress at Oxford. T-shirt and image owned by Jean Portell.

By Joyce Hill Stoner

I was appointed managing editor of IIC’s Art and Archaeology Technical Abstracts in September 1969. A year later I attended my first IIC Congress which focused on stone and wooden objects and was held in New York City, mostly in the Metropolitan Museum of Art auditorium. 

Larry Majewski, my professor at the NYU Institute of Fine Arts Conservation Center, introduced me to some of the prominent attendees, including Caroline and Sheldon Keck, who seemed to me to be quiet and elderly. (I was suddenly surprised at Caroline’s salty language a few years later at an AIC meeting; I believe Sheldon was not well in 1970.) Larry introduced me to the great Hanna Jedrzejewska, then the AATA regional editor from Poland, and over the years I got to know most of the other international editors at the IIC congresses. There were many papers given by Polish conservators; I learned that they were required to present a paper in order to be allowed to leave to attend the meeting, and IIC kindly abetted this.

I flew to Lisbon for the game-changing 1972 Congress, Conservation of Paintings and the Graphic Arts, which introduced BEVA and PVA heat-seal linings, and I met Gustav and Mira Berger—from that point on Mira would be in the aisles passing out samples of Kleenex lined with non-staining BEVA as a feature of many congresses. Herbert Lank spoke about MS2A, and Margaret Watherston assertively addressed cupped and cracked paint. I heard my first gloriously illustrated lecture about cross-sections by Joyce Plesters, and my trip included visiting London and photographing Joyce by her microscope as well as Jim Murrell with his miniature paintings. I learned at some point that Joyce (married to Norman Brommelle, the forceful IIC Secretary-General for THIRTY years: 1958-1988) had gerbils named “Victoria and Albert.” Apparently, it was a great prize for British conservators to have one of the offspring gerbils, which were named appropriately for the historical princes and princesses. The congress wives (Mrs. Gettens, Mrs. Buck, and Mrs. Stout) had special activities of their own and enjoyed having my film-critic husband Patrick join them for excursions.

1975 was in Stockholm, themed Archaeology and the Applied Arts, with focus on the recovered warship Wasa. My memory is that we had a very smoky barbecue right beside the Wasa and watched the continuing spray of polyethylene glycol over the timbers. I met dear Kazuo Yamasaki, the AATA regional editor from Japan, while out window shopping. At a reception, one regional editor saw me coming and visibly backed away—she knew she hadn’t sent anything in for two years! I got to know wonderful Giorgio Torraca, regional editor from Italy, who assured me that many northern Italians had red hair as he did. He soon became a hero for taking on the computerization of AATA, funding additional abstractors, and imagining an interconnecting international abstracting network; this materialized more fully about a decade later under the aegis of the Getty Conservation Institute when Jessica Brown replaced me as AATA managing editor.

IIC Oxford 1978, Wood in Painting and the Decorative Arts, was unforgettable. By this time Norman Brommelle was regularly striding across the stage with a triangle, producing a “ting” when speakers o’er spent their allotted time. We sat in an Oxford classroom with an arcing snap-down desktop for each row, so that if you needed to take a break, your whole row had to snap up the top and stand to let you out. Norman noted that there was little attrition for various talks as a result. There was vibrant disagreement between a German and an Asian speaker about the best way to consolidate Asian lacquer; Norman pronounced the success of the Oxford Congress at the close by pointing to the two speakers smiling and chatting together on the front row, planning a joint publication.

The next Congress was in Vienna, 1980; rumor had it that Norman didn’t like having to wait three years for the next conference, and suddenly they were biennial. The Congress in Washington, 1982 (Science and Technology) had moments of extreme conflict and name calling over the impact of humidity changes and stress on the Atlanta Cyclorama. Because we were so near to the Winterthur/University of Delaware campus, many of my students were in attendance and said they felt hesitant about the tenor of our profession as a result. 

The IIC Paris Congress in 1984, on Adhesives and Consolidants, featured Norman Brommelle, who had, clearly with great effort, memorized some French phrases to welcome the group in the host language. We all got to see the great Mme Hours (who had joined the Research Labs of France at the age of 24, was on the founding committee for IIC, and served as head of the laboratory of the Louvre Museum from 1949 to 1982), stand up at the microphone and say – in elegantly accented English: “I suppose I am now a monument.” I had to run a large AATA meeting, and my husband—who was supposed to look after our 2-year-old and 6-year-old daughters—suddenly got an invitation to do a TV appearance on a French channel at exactly that time. So, the girls sat on a blanket playing happily beside a smiling Norman.

I’ll skip ahead to IIC Brussels in 1990, on Cleaning, Retouching, and Coatings, where I gave my first IIC talk, co-presented with Wendy Samet on our treatment of Whistler’s Peacock Room, including new cleaning methods. We were the second talk of the conference and had flown over the Atlantic the night before after plane connection problems (also resulting in my baggage being lost for four days), and the first speaker doubled her time! Wendy’s fingernails were buried in my arm while this first speaker went on and on. Norman had stepped down two years earlier, after his 30-year reign, and there was no triangle “ting” to rescue us. 

We did eventually give the talk, and the Congress continued with a profession-enhancing presentation by René de la Rie who introduced new low molecular weight synthetic resins and ways to doctor our old favorites, dammar and mastic, with hindered amine light stabilizers such as Tinuvin. The assistants in the light booth who were managing the double-slide projectors did not speak English and mixed the left and right projectors. I remember René calling out “changez les diapositives!” To make matters worse, the podium had only a button for ONE of the projectors; speakers had to wave their arms to signal a slide change of the other. Sadly, our comparative double slides were not always in pairs.

Two more IIC congresses were life changers for me: Dublin 1998 starring then Secretary-General David Bomford and the new world of technical art history. The theme of Painting Techniques: History, Materials and Studio Practice inspired eye-opening papers, many presenting the fruits of in-depth (often doctoral) study of particular artists by paintings conservation colleagues. My younger (by then teenage) daughter and I happily shared a dorm room at Trinity College. And then there was IIC Bilbao 2004, Modern Art: New Museums, with the amazing “starchitecture” of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and the Puppy by Jeff Koons. Nearby restaurants served a dessert recreating the structure of the Museum with curved candied panels and the puppy on the side, decorated with shredded coconut. 

It has been 50 years since my first IIC Congress, and I wouldn’t have missed a moment.

Author Byline:

Joyce Hill Stoner, PhD, studied conservation and art history at the NYU IFA, has taught paintings conservation for the Winterthur/UD Program in Art Conservation for 44 years, and founded and directs the UD doctoral program in preservation studies.

 

(Read the article and see all the accompanying pictures in the special anniversary issue of "News in Conservation" December-January 2021, Issue 81, p. 58-61)

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We were the second talk of the conference and had flown over the Atlantic the night before after plane connection problems (also resulting in my baggage being lost for four days), and the first speaker doubled her time!
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