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Subject: Unpaid graduate internships

Unpaid graduate internships

From: Jennifer Barnett <reginatextilia>
Date: Tuesday, January 13, 2004
In answer to Karen Elise Thomas's posting in Conservation DistList
Instance: 17:49 Friday, January 9, 2004:

Since graduating in 1983, I have followed the professionalizing of
the profession and training programs, and the proliferation of
training programs with a strong feeling that, despite regional
developments, this is not a growth industry and probably never would
be unless the creation of new museums becomes a growth industry.
This is because, financially speaking, conservation is a luxury. If
a government with limited funds has to choose between sustainable
funding for public health or the conservation of cultural heritage,
which would win? The same is for the private sector; which would you
choose, a dental treatment or a conservation treatment? If a country
experiences strong economic growth, there is more government money
for conservation. Come the inevitable recession and conservation
funding is cut, private people do not have their objects conserved,
the antique trade suffers and so it goes on. This has certainly been
my experience here in the Netherlands. I have a strong feeling that,
internationally speaking, the funding of the conservation of
moveable objects on a governmental or institutional level has had
its peak. Or, more optimistically expressed, has had a peak in the
late 1980's - early 1990's and we are now on the down side which
could, of course, always change to up.

About the supply and demand of graduates: In my experience, many
people are attracted to conservation out of idealism (save the world
by beginning with inanimate objects) or for an unconscious emotional
motive (eg make objects whole = make themselves whole etc). Add to
this romantic images of working on important/beautiful pieces in
important collections and it is no surprise that many student
applicants do not wish to register warnings of limited job and
intern opportunities. The fact that most other graduate programs
(Art History being a very strong example!) produce more  graduates
than the market can absorb, and this is accepted as normal, only
reinforces my opinion on this matter.

About reducing training programs: The training of conservators is
very expensive, so the more students there are, the more
economically efficient it is. Therefore most university programs
have to run on the basis of a minimum number of students in order to
ensure adequate funding for paying the lecturers. If the numbers of
applicants fall below the minimum over some years, then the course
is usually stopped.

Which brings me to the issue of the continuity of knowledge. If the
only training institution in a country stops teaching conservation
or a conservation discipline, the accumulated structured knowledge
and focus on that field fades away. This loss goes beyond the
conservation of material, it can also apply to the technical
knowledge of specific types of national cultural heritage: how
things are made, which materials are used.

A definite generation gap is also created as we are experiencing
here with textile conservation. Since 1992 there have only been
three graduates, from which only one has (part-time) employment.
There are fewer and fewer textile conservators to keep the national
textile conservation work group going--there is no new blood coming
though to relieve the old timers who have been doing the committee
work for many years. Due to lack of work quite a few, including
myself, have stopped over the last few years. There are plenty of
textiles in collections but no jobs and few contracts. There are no
private collectors to speak of. The government funds conservation
training but can not order museums to employ conservators, such as
their own graduates who were dearly paid for by tax payers' money.

To summarise

    1.  Conservation training is expensive so there must be large
        numbers of students to be economically viable. Institutions
        holding cultural heritage collections cannot be forced to
        employ conservators, even if both are funded by the same
        government department.

        It is easier to weed out weak students. The risk of over
        supply is that it leads to disappointed graduates and the
        evolutionary survival of the fittest. That is sad for a lot
        of graduates but that's the way it is.

    2.  If there are small numbers of students, the cost of training
        is out of proportion with production. The training
        institution becomes much more vulnerable to government
        funding cuts in times of recession. Risk of less weeding out
        of weak students. Risk of under supply of graduates--less
        talented graduates also get jobs.

    3.  Cutting training programs leads to loss of continuity and
        accumulated knowledge. Risk of continuing deterioration and
        loss of cultural heritage. This scenario has far greater
        consequences than having a pool of unemployed graduates.

    4.  Is the loss of cultural heritage always so bad? The
        preservation of national material cultural heritage and its
        accumulated knowledge is not just the responsibility of
        ministers of culture and museum directors. If the majority
        of the voting public is unconcerned, there will never be
        enough funding for truly sustainable conservation of
        cultural heritage. If a country or city loses cultural
        heritage through financial neglect through lack of public
        support, then that is a true reflection of that culture.
        Applying conservation funding in that case would lead to an
        untrue expression of how a country or city valued its
        material culture.

A good recent example of expressed material cultural values is the
case of our Western protests against the Taliban destroying buddhist
statues in Afghanistan, their own land. The well meant protests,
which clearly expressed Western culture, probably only served to
encourage the perpetrators. The heavily damaged statues now express
the culture of the then reigning Taliban. It is not a pretty sight
but it is a powerful and true expression of material cultural.

My conclusion is that over supply of graduates is better for the
conservation community as a whole because it should lead to the
better graduates getting sustainable employment in the long run.

Jennifer Barnett (former textile conservator)
Historical textiles research and consultation
Oude Looiersstraat 65-67
1016 VH Amsterdam
+31 0 20 427 18 27 (phone/fax)

                  Conservation DistList Instance 17:50
                 Distributed: Tuesday, January 20, 2004
                       Message Id: cdl-17-50-001
Received on Tuesday, 13 January, 2004

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