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Subject: Conservation facilities and the public

Conservation facilities and the public

From: Stephanie Watkins <sbwatkins>
Date: Friday, August 10, 2001
Fern Bleckner <blecknerf [at] saam__si__edu>, on behalf of Claire Larkin,

>    ...  When
>    the building reopens, the public will be able to get a "behind
>    the scenes" look at all aspects of work that is routinely
>    performed in a paintings', paper and objects' conservation lab.
>    We believe we will be the first conservation lab where
>    activities are visible daily, not just for a "special project."
>    If there are other examples of visible conservation labs already
>    in operation, we would like to hear about your first-hand
>    knowledge, particularly with the rationale for their creation
>    and how the public responded to the experience. ...

There are many instances where conservation labs have been visible
for the public to see on a routine basis.  Two examples are at the
Hearst Castle Visitor's Center, in San Simeon, California and at the
Menil in Houston, TX.  In both cases, one side of the lab is a
window.  Archeological labs, especially those that clean dinosaur
fossils, often have a view window.  Many labs also allow visitors to
walk in and talk with the workers directly during specified hours.
One governmental archive where I worked had a window view from a
reading room "to allow taxpayers the opportunity to see where their
tax dollars were going."  Many other examples exist.

A benefit to having working conservators on view is general
education of the public without the interruption of a tour.  What we
do is pretty fascinating to many people.  Public response is
generally positive.  Further benefits are great public relations and
potential funding opportunities.  One disadvantage is the loss of
the human interaction one gets with tours.

>From my own experience, my opinion is that conservators generally
dislike being put on exhibit.  It's like living in a fish bowl or
constantly on camera.  For some it can become nerve wracking.  How
many times a day ar you aware of your body language?  At the
archive, I found the staff extremely reluctant to work in front of
the window. Hiding around a corner or working where one couldn't be
watched as easily were common responses.  Alas, half the
workstations had been built in front of the window.  A possible
compromise is to install blinds, drapes, or a sliding wall that can
be opened for observation or closed for privacy when necessary.

The last time I was at the Hearst Castle Visitor's Center, large
paintings had been placed in front of the visitor's viewing window.
All one could see was the back of the canvases on their easels and
at the base, the occasional scurrying of ankles and shoes across the
floor.  The visitor's comments I overheard were disappointment and
worse.  I don't remember signage explaining why the view was

When there is a large viewing area, it's hard to create a dark area
for examination (UV, for example).  Activities involving directional
or intense lighting can also be troublesome to the viewers.  At the
archive, the archivists once requested the conservators alter or
cease work because our activity was disturbing the patrons.   A
separate examination and photographic documentation area might
resolve this issue, but the impact of additional moving of
collections materials should be considered.

Tapping on the glass seems to be a favorite past-time, especially by
the staff and groups of children.  What is a simple tap on one side
can become a loud boom on the inside.  Not pleasant when you are
doing a delicate operation using a scalpel.  Designing in a distance
barrier between the public and the glazing face will reduce this
tendency and also the need to constantly clean handling marks from
the glazing.

There's also potential to scare the public if personal safety
equipment is used on a routine basis or if fire marshal solvent
storage cabinets (bright yellow) are in view.  Responses may depend
on the sophistication of the audience you anticipate.  Good signage
in many languages might help as well as blinds, drapes, or mobile

Conservators do much more than sit at a bench or table performing
item-by-item treatments.  Before implementing a design to allow
visitors to watch conservators, you might want to determine how
often the room will be occupied in interesting treatment activities.
The public's observation of mundane activities such as people
sitting at the computer or viewing a vacant room when the
conservators are at meetings won't be an asset to your institution.

Stephanie Watkins
Head of Paper Conservation, Conservation Department
The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center
The University of Texas at Austin

                  Conservation DistList Instance 15:17
                 Distributed: Tuesday, August 14, 2001
                       Message Id: cdl-15-17-001
Received on Friday, 10 August, 2001

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