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Subject: AIC certification plan

AIC certification plan

From: Christopher Augerson <chris<-a>
Date: Saturday, November 8, 2008
My Opposition to the AIC Certification Plan

Regarding the proposed plan for AIC certification of conservators, I
oppose it for the reasons outlined below.  In evaluating it, I draw
on my knowledge of accreditation schemes in the UK, France and
Belgium, with which I have first-hand experience.  I appreciate the
work that many have done, but I see no need to change from the
current, less costly system of AIC membership categories such as
Professional Associate.  Moreover, I see potential pitfalls
associated with its implementation beyond its financial cost.  Most
importantly, I believe such certification will misallocate AIC's
limited resources and that of its members.

1. Background: Professional accreditation in Europe, where the state
of the profession is critically different from that in the U.S.

One reason that the idea of AIC certification has held much interest
in the last several years is that during this time accreditation
schemes have been instituted in each of the European Union
countries.  In some countries such as the United Kingdom,
conservators had been the victim of centuries-old traditions that
consider all manual laborers to be of an inferior class.  This
deep-rooted attitude negatively affected our European counterparts,
whose salary rates are substantially lower than ours in the United
States, even with recent exchange rates considered.  For this
reason, certification in the UK is important to enhance the
professional profile of practicing conservators in Europe, relative
to other museum professionals and other highly-trained specialists.
In France, certification distinguishes conservators who have proper
training and follow the ethical guidelines of the profession from
the ubiquitous storefront restorers who have inferior training or
ethical guidelines.  In many European countries, these distinctions
are further necessary because conservation training programs with a
scientific approach are a recent development and must be
distinguished from trade schools that merely teach traditional
artisan techniques, and whose graduates comprise the great majority
of people who currently practice as "conservators."  In those
countries, there are relatively few people who have training in the
use of conservation-grade materials and in principles such as
reversibility and minimal invasiveness.

The United States has not had such problems during the last quarter
century.  There is no prejudice against conservation as manual
labor.  Trained conservators are not far outnumbered by unqualified
restorers.  The lack of a certificate, beyond an appropriate
university degree, is not a source of discrimination for
conservators relative to other museum professionals.  All this is a
result of the excellent conservation training programs that have
been established in the United Sates since the 1960s. We now have at
least two generations of conservators trained at the Master's level,
and this has set a high standard for the non-program trained
conservators as well.  Today, the requirements for entry into the
U.S. training programs are even more demanding than in Europe: ours
require more prior coursework in the pertinent subjects such as
chemistry and art history and, of equal importance, they require
pre-program training in conservation.  Many people who do not go on
to a Master's degree program still follow this preparation, and
their ability do good work can be recognized by the AIC with the
status of Professional Associate, which the AIC Membership committee
acknowledges is "a de facto 'certification', primarily because of
the requirement of proof of compliance with minimum levels of
professional procedures and practices."

2. The current system of accreditation is better than the proposed

In the last edition of AIC News, Barbara Appelbaum and Paul
Himmelstein noted some of the questions and possible problems
arising with an exam format for the accreditation of conservators.
These are likely to be the principal reasons that the accrediting
bodies in the UK and France have chosen to institute accreditation
systems that resemble the AIC's current review for PA status, rather
than create a system like the proposed AIC certification exam.

Our current system for becoming a PA might be refined in some of its
details, but remains very good.  Most egregious was the AIC
Certification Committee's assertion that we need an evaluation of
the competence of conservators because Professional Associate status
is not a measure of such competence, but instead a measure of one's
"service to the profession"
<URL:>. At
least two years of conservation training (after an undergraduate
degree) and at least three years of experience are typically
required of PA applicants, who must provide three letters of
reference from PAs familiar with their work (who, preferably, have
visited the candidate's workplace).  Applicants must also show
evidence of their ability to adhere to the AIC's Code of Ethics and
Guidelines for Practice by providing documents such as recent
examination forms, proposed and completed treatment forms, lecture
materials, planning documents, and survey reports.  How can all
these requirements for PA status not be a measure of competence?  To
me it offers more proof of competence (or lack thereof) than the
proposed certification exam, which is handed in to examiners who are
not familiar with the candidate's practical work, and without
further discussion or the opportunity for the examiners to pose
further questions.

3. AIC Certification was proposed to define the qualifications of
professional conservators, so that government agencies will not
inaccurately define our qualifications.  In fact, certification does
more than is necessary to provide such a definition and too little
to help the classification needs of those agencies.

According to the Certification Committee, a primary reason for
certification is for the profession to define the qualifications and
standards of its practitioners.  Otherwise, they argue, government
agencies will do this for us, as apparently they have since the
1990s in published descriptions of government jobs for conservators.
What the committee has not made clear is how the government's
criteria were inappropriate or unfair to actual practicing

In truth, the AIC has already provided a definition of a practicing
conservator in its bylaws and noted the compliance of such a
conservator to ethical guidelines as enumerated in the AIC Code of
Ethics and Guidelines for Practice.  Perhaps the definition of a
professional conservator given in the AIC bylaws could be made
clearer, or perhaps it would be appropriate to elaborate upon the
"specialized education, knowledge, training and experience" required
of a conservator. (It might be useful to add, for example, that the
knowledge pertains to the function of the artifact conserved, its
material nature and chemistry, its sociological and historical
context as well as the aesthetics of the culture and epoch of its

By describing the struggle of government agencies seeking to define
a conservator when hiring one, the Certification Committee
acknowledges that public institutions need the AIC to further
clarify the professional credentials of its members, in order to
help such institutions in their hiring decisions.  But the proposed
certification plan will not do that very well. Designed to be low in
cost, the proposed certification scheme will not address a
practitioner's specialized skills.  An examination of these would
require a more lengthy, more complex and more expensive
accreditation process.  One can conclude that selecting the right
conservator for the job will remain an important and occasionally
time-consuming process (requiring reference checks, etc.).

Public officials might be helped in this endeavor by being made more
aware of the AIC's current recommendations on selecting a
conservator, by having the Internet link to these recommendations be
more easily found by web search engines, and possibly by AIC
revising them with public officials in mind.  In addition, perhaps
the AIC could offer a course for public officials and others charged
with choosing a conservator.

4. The Certification Committee wrongly argues that "once AIC members
attain professional associate or fellow status, there is nothing
that requires continuing education or commitment to the field"

This statement is factually incorrect.  To paraphrase article X of
the AIC Code of Ethics, a conservator's continuing education *or*
contribution to the field is an ongoing requirement, even for PAs
and Fellows.  Continuing education is therefore not required for
those who are teaching or otherwise contributing to the field.  I
agree with those who believe that continuing education should apply
to all conservators.

Would it not be simpler, if this is a problem to be addressed, to
simply change the wording of article X of the Code of Ethics, so
that everyone is expected to participate in continuing education?
Certainly no one would be opposed to it in principle.  And most
people would rather take a refresher course than take a
certification exam (woe to the person who'd prefer the exam!).

A means of keeping track of how each individual satisfies these
requirements could be debated, if any such means is to be put in
place at all.  ICON monitors this with special forms that
conservators must fill out, but perhaps a couple lines added to
one's annual membership renewal form would suffice, for describing
what one has done to learn more during the previous year.  This
could be attending a special course or symposium, but it might
simply be participating in Internet forums and reading AIC News and

5. Certification of conservators by AIC would not necessarily give
them clout in wider circles

Certification is also intended as a means to give conservators more
clout vis-a-vis powerful team members such as architects
<URL:>. However,
the certification of conservators by their fellow conservators is
not guaranteed to give them a lot more clout.  Part of the
Certification Committee's argument for certification states that
even plumbers have certificates.  By this, can one conclude that
conservators, once certified, can look forward to being on the level
of plumbers, in the eyes of architects?

How others perceive us can only be addressed by a drive for
educating the public about what we do and its importance, and about
the many years of study, training and experience that the work of a
professional conservator requires, summed up by their title of
Professional Associate.  The recent suggestion of the Membership
Committee to change this title to Professional Member seems
reasonable to me as these PAs do form the main body of the
professional membership, and "Associate" more often infers a less
central corps.

6. The argument that certification is needed to level the playing
field between program-trained and other conservators
<URL:> is not

I am aware of such discrimination within the profession, and believe
that encouraging further professional development for all
professionals in conservation should be a goal "especially if some
of us worry that others may lack a sufficient foundation of training
in it.  At this time, however, not being program trained does not,
to my knowledge, pose barriers to Professional Associate status for
conservators.  If equal footing through PAship has not eliminated
discrimination, on what possible basis is it conceivable that equal
footing through certification will end it?

7. Investment in a certification program will not ensure better
treatment of art and artifacts.

It has been stated that the new AIC system will not be mandatory
<URL:>, but public
institutions will likely require it over time.  In the UK, ICON
(formerly UKIC) does not make accreditation mandatory for its
members, but it has become nearly so in practice, with public
institutions now requiring newly hired conservators to either be
certified or to have their certification in progress (their more
complicated process can take a year and a half).  One can expect AIC
certification over time to become mandatory for all conservators
working for museums, thereby requiring AIC to invest heavily in the
program.  Nonetheless, it would not necessarily improve the
treatment of artifacts in U.S. museums, where the standard is
already high.  Moreover, it should not be expected to secure better
care for the artifacts and artwork in the hands of private
collectors and dealers, who will have no obligation to hire
certified conservators.

8. Conservator certification may be difficult to overlay onto an
existing professional hierarchy.

The Current Membership Committee has proposed a co-existence of PA
(renamed PM)/Fellow categories, along with Certification
<URL:>.  In
practice, this means that there would be a variety of professional
titles: Certified Members, Professional Members, Fellows, Certified
Professional Members, and Certified Fellows (as explained in Ruth
Syler's letter to Specialty Group chairs, dated May 23, 2008).  This
garden of varieties can only confuse that poor public administer,
mentioned above, whose work we intend to simplify by using new

Another real problem that we may face upon instituting certification
is that many Fellows, who are the leaders of the field as
professors, course instructors, teachers and authors, may not be
inclined to drive several hours to take an exam, graded by another
conservator of lesser experience.  The Certified Membership could
easily be skewed toward a less experienced group that does not
represent the greater fruits of more than 40 years of professional
excellence from the AIC.

Accreditation could also have unintended, negative effects on the
workplace of the museum conservation department, such as divisions
between certified and non-certified conservators.  In the UK, I have
witnessed an ugly case of abuse of power of an ICON-accredited
conservator over others in the department who were not yet
accredited by ICON.   Supervisors motivated by politics can abuse
their power to favor and assist one employee's certification over
that of other equally-qualified employees.  Ill-natured, certified
employees can also wield and abuse power over their uncertified

9. Adopting a completely new scheme will divert our resources, to
our detriment.

My greatest objection to the proposed AIC certification plan is that
it can distract AIC members and our resources from critical problems
that the profession now faces.  These problems include the
downsizing of conservation staff at many museums, a growing trend
among some in museum education to allow the untrained public to
handle the collections, superstar exhibit designers who are able to
override sensible measures for preventive conservation, the lack of
any guarantee of affordable insurance for conservators in the coming
years, an absence of peer review for a majority of conservation
publications (JAIC and SIC among the few exceptions), and
insufficient research funds.

In addition to deterring us from addressing more pressing problems,
an over-emphasis on the AIC's regulatory duties may also discourage
its growth and development.  As Appelbaum and Himmelstein noted in
the last AIC News, a strong emphasis on professional certification
often leads to a reduced number of practicing professionals.  At
this time, the limited job market for conservators provides enough
discouragement for the young, intelligent and talented people who
might enter the field and ensure its continued growth.  I am
concerned that a new emphasis on a regulatory role for the AIC could
discourage activity in a profession that is still developing in the
United States and that is now rapidly evolving worldwide.

10. The current system of PAs and Fellows could be altered if

As Barbara Appelbaum and Paul Himmelstein suggested, it would be
less costly and create less disturbance to simply adapt the current
scheme of Professional Associates and Fellows if need be.

It will be important to bear in mind, when altering the current
system, that the systems employed by the medical, legal or
architectural professions might not be completely transferable to
conservation, because we lack clear standards for "best practice."
This is in part due to insufficient research on conservation
treatments and in part to the creative nature of the work in which
multiple excellent approaches are possible.  A lack of clear "best
practice" standards complicates our assessment of the conduct of
conservators, and our accreditation scheme must accommodate this

The proposed certification plan offers the opportunity of an exam to
gauge a conservator's ability to weigh different options of a
treatment, and justify both the practical and the ethical reasons
for a preferred decision.  Currently, applicants for PA (or PM) must
write an essay about the ways they uphold the Standards of Practice
and Code of Ethics; perhaps applicants could also be asked to write
an essay that discusses their weighing of various options in
specific work situations when important choices had to be made.  The
written application for ICON accreditation requires such reflection
upon and pointed discussion of previous work and the decisions made

We should debate the option of making mandatory the continuing
professional development of PAs and Fellows, as does the proposed
certification plan.  I suggest that article X of the AIC Code of
Ethics could be changed to read, "The conservation professional
shall contribute to *his or her own professional growth* and the
growth of the profession...," adding the words I have emphasized.
The reason being, in short, that it is important to maintain our
excellence within the profession.

11. Maintaining excellence

In my introduction, I listed reasons that the AIC has been at the
forefront of the profession worldwide since the 1960s.  In the new
century, we have wonderful tools at our disposal for advancing the
profession, and remaining leaders in the field.  It is my
understanding that with Skype and webcams, conference calls are now
possible, and it will be possible for AIC to host forums, from
across all the Americas (and beyond), where experts in the field can
discuss issues of importance to the field.  Such forums can be made
available to conservators in the form of podcasts, along with
lectures and other educational material.  By making professional
development engaging and exciting, we guarantee fuller participation
than by any other method, including regulation.

These new technologies might also be employed to offer alternative
means of engaging with applicants for Professional Associate status,
especially those who live in remote areas, to discuss their PA
candidature with them and provide additional opportunities for
interaction with, or questions from, the AIC professionals reviewing
their application materials.

Supporting more courses, offered at more sites, and developing
on-line learning forums can encourage further study by everyone,
including PAs and Fellows, and the AIC should focus its resources on
its educational role--within the profession and for the general
public--and not on any regulatory role.  We should avoid recreating
the overly self-regulating and protectionist ways of artisan guilds
in the Middle Ages, and look forward to a future of increased
professional membership and full member participation.

In summary, I suggest several ideas for actions to be considered, as
alternatives to AIC certification, should the membership be
persuaded: (1) changing phrases of Article X of the AIC Code of
Ethics so that continuing education be an ongoing requirement for
all members; (2) asking  members to comment on their recent
continuing education when renewing their annual membership; (3)
changing the title Professional Associate to Professional Member, as
has been suggested; (4) asking applicants for Professional
Membership to write an additional essay, on their weighing of
various options in one or more project wherein important choices had
to be made; (5) enhancing the availability of the AIC's advice on
choosing a conservator, perhaps with a course for public officials
and others charged with heritage preservation; and (6) directing any
financial savings achieved through the abandonment of the
certification plan toward continuing educational activities for AIC

Note: the author is a Professional Associate of the AIC, an
accredited member of ICON, accredited by the French Ministry of
Culture, recipient of a certificate of proficiency (in the
conservation of polychrome sculpture) from the Belgian Royal
Institute of Artistic Heritage, and is certificated as a Surveyor in
Remedial Treatment (CSRT) by The Institute of Wood Preserving and
Damp-Proofing (UK).

                  Conservation DistList Instance 22:28
                 Distributed: Monday, November 10, 2008
                       Message Id: cdl-22-28-001
Received on Saturday, 8 November, 2008

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