By Caitlin Richeson, Jessica Betz Abel, Ashley Stanford, Héctor J. Berdecía-Hernández, and Keara Teeter for ECPN
2020 was a year like no other. Over the past year, we have experienced dramatic changes to the field of conservation, from the economic and social effects of COVID-19 to the acknowledgement that conservation is not neutral. The sweeping waves of social justice in the United States have forced us all to recognize our personal and professional privilege and biases. Throughout all of this change and uncertainty, a pervasive level of anxiety for emerging conservation professionals (ECPs) has been growing with pre-program students reconsidering the field they are joining and emerging conservators looking closely to our recent history in trying to navigate a field in flux.
The Emerging Conservation Professionals Network (ECPN) last contributed to the lead article for AIC News in 2016. At that time, the authors wrote about the current trends and reflections of emerging conservation professionals (ECPs). Four years later, ECPs report similar concerns which are further exacerbated by the effects of the pandemic. When I became Vice Chair and Chair in 2019 and 2020 respectively, ECPs were still concerned about increased minimum qualifications paired with strong competition for fellowships and entry-level positions, as well as low salaries in the field. My leadership goals included creating resources to address these concerns. Instead, the pandemic has led us to discuss how the field can support ECPs and what the role of a conservator is, when defined by essential tasks and social justice.
Not everything in 2020 was catastrophic; emerging and established conservators came together to adapt, support, and grow our community in virtual platforms. Still, a sense of unease remains. What follows are the reflections of conservators entering the field in an unprecedented time.
—Caitlin Richeson, ECPN Chair 2020-21, firstname.lastname@example.org
ECPN assists with the transition from pre-program candidacy to graduate school and through to early career stages.
We do this by producing targeted programming and resources, fostering a professional community for ECPs through local networks and online platforms, and connecting ECPs with educational and professional development opportunities.
Learn more at www.culturalheritage.org/ecpn.
Conservation in a Pandemic
At the beginning of the pandemic as labs closed and lockdowns began, ECPs across the country began expressing concerns about their futures due to canceled internships and in-person classes, and the greatly reduced ability to network and connect with others. One of the first effects of COVID-19 was the loss of opportunities for many pre-program and graduate students as classes and internships were abruptly canceled. Graduate programs have made significant efforts to adapt and support their students, transitioning from in-person classes to Zoom lectures and creating take-home exercises to provide hands-on learning. Graduate school, in the best of times, can take its toll on a student’s mental health. In addition to their normal workload, graduate students now have to grapple with Zoom burnout, and the stress and anxiety surrounding a global pandemic. Despite trying to make the best of their circumstances, there is an overwhelming sense of anxiety and loss amongst graduate students.
“The greatest fear for conservation students from all cohorts affected by COVID restrictions is lacking the technical experience required to secure a job in the conservation field following graduation. Faculty are currently working to compensate for this with small-group workshops, but our inability to perform meaningful site work is frustrating. The reason many of us selected this program was for such site-based opportunities locally, domestically, and internationally.” —Meris Westberg, UPenn, 2021
“I feel very fortunate that the WUDPAC program has ample lab space, allowing us to still come in and do treatment that could not be completed at home. My concern however is the workload, in that it seems we are expected to produce the same amount of work in incredibly stressful and mentally taxing times.” —Nylah Byrd, WUDPAC 2022
The pandemic has challenged the entire field with widespread layoffs and furloughs, the reduction of in-person opportunities, and an increased demand for online resources and communication. ECPN was challenged to engage with ECPs virtually. Thankfully, this challenge was met with enthusiasm by the large liaison program.
At a time when formal internships and opportunities disappeared, the ECPN Liaison Program expanded to six new regions. These liaisons helped create dynamic virtual programming and expand ECPN resources. Events held in the virtual space fostered collaboration between networks and cities. Liaisons across the country used a new ECPN Zoom account to host art making nights, meet and greets, podcast discussions, portfolio reviews, lab tours, and the opportunity to support friends and colleagues during these difficult times. Virtual programming became available like never before and offered ECPs greater access to labs, learning opportunities, graduate programs, other ECPs, and mentors that they may not have had access to previously due to location or cost.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that being isolated at home still allows us to explore professional development opportunities and form connections with others. With the loss of in-person opportunities, San Francisco Regional Liaisons Laura García-Vedrenne and Clair Emma Smith recognized that the ECPs in their area would greatly benefit from a mentorship program with local conservators. They worked closely with Justine Wuebold (former ECPN Regional Liaison and current Member at Large of the Bay Area Art Conservation Guild) and Michelle Barger (Head of Conservation at SFMOMA) to match each interested ECP with a conservation mentor.
“We both personally know how much (having) the support of the conservation community can make all the difference in finding future internship opportunities as well as clearing the hurdles necessary to get into a graduate program.... One of the important things we learned early on from starting this [mentorship] program was that each relationship was never going to be one size fits all. Everyone has their own ideas and ways of doing things, so we left it up to the mentor/mentee to figure out how best to be in contact and accomplish goals. Right now, these mentorships range from email correspondence and furthered networking to virtual meetings on conservation ethics, at home exercises, and reviewing of applications.” —Laura García-Vedrenne and Clair Emma Smith
ECPs are hopeful that the influx and availability of virtual resources will last beyond the pandemic. We hope these types of connections will continue into the future as ECPN continues to provide support to emerging conservation professionals.
Equity, Diversity, and Access
The confluence of last year’s extraordinary events, including the pandemic, the nation’s political instability, and the civil rights revolution has inspired our community to think deeply about how the field of conservation and cultural heritage institutions can meaningfully engage and support a broader demographic. The social effects of 2020 led to discussions about the role cultural heritage institutions play in upholding colonial and white-supremacist values. Accessibility of conservation education, training, resources, and mentorship continue to be a concern for black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) emerging conservators.
“Many BIPOC students from my pre-program days weighed the difficulty of getting opportunities, even volunteering, and the gauntlet of the grad program admissions, before entering a field with suppressed salaries. If we can make training more accessible and push for better compensation, it will make it easier for BIPOC conservators to exist in the field.” —LaStarsha McGarrity, SUNY Buffalo State College, 2019
While the field in general has been more open to discussions about systemic barriers preventing diversity, the suspension of “business as usual” caused by the pandemic left room for ECPs to reflect on what is necessary to address these issues. Rio Lopez, SUNY Buffalo State College, 2022, believes that “this sort of change requires a unified front and one that has to happen from the top in order to allow for any sort of lasting change. For example, an increase of more permanent and paid opportunities in the field.” Funding is often cited as the primary barrier to increasing diversity within the field. Many cannot afford unpaid internships or to live in urban centers on suppressed salaries and are therefore unable to pursue a career in conservation. Complex issues of systemic and institutional racism mean that this factor disproportionately affects BIPOC students. These contributing factors mean that increased accountability is necessary if the field is truly committed to creating a more diverse and equitable community.
In the wake of the repeated acts of violence against BIPOC communities across the country which sparked massive demonstrations and “Black Lives Matter” protests this past summer, many people and institutions in the United States launched open recognition and discussion about the effects of systemic racism. Similarly, conservators began to examine their own roles in upholding racist and colonial systems within the field. BIPOC ECPs have often led the discussion on this topic, expressing a need for the field to rethink current methodologies and pedagogy. BIPOC affinity groups were formed to support and celebrate our colleagues. Ultimately, the field must recognize that conservation is not neutral, that conservators bring their own bias to preservation, and we have historically held a role in upholding colonial practice in museums. We can learn so much more by collaborating with artists and source communities, which in turn will help us build trust and hopefully become more accessible and welcoming to the public and BIPOC communities.
There is a strong desire for changes that will expand access, create equitable pay practices, and incorporate ethics that support decolonization. The scope of desired change is large and there are valid concerns among ECPs that these conversations will fade with time, resulting in no real change and the reinforcement of the status quo. Commitment to progress requires sustained work in analyzing and unpacking the fundamental structure of cultural heritage institutions and our own individual bias.
ECPN is committed to supporting BIPOC community members who hope the conversations continue as we work towards real tangible change.
In the preceding years, compensation was central to ECPN programming. Our focus on pay transparency and equitable compensation is a direct reflection of our community’s concern about this matter. The pandemic has exacerbated these compensation concerns, specifically:
- how lay-offs and furloughs will impact future wages in the job market,
- how the current economy could intensify an already fierce competition among job applicants,
- other short- and long-term costs associated with continuing to search for work in the field under the extenuating circumstances caused by the pandemic.
During the 2020 ECPN Virtual Town Hall, a number of ECPs brought forward these points. Following this session, in an effort to address the anxiety of our community, ECPN created a survey to capture ECP experiences from the 2008 Great Recession. We expect to post a summary of these survey responses on our blog for public dissemination in 2021. ECPN hopes that this summary will provide current ECPs with a better understanding of how economic circumstances from over a decade ago have continued to affect the conservation community. Using these new insights, we hope current ECPs will be better able to anticipate what might await them as they begin their careers.
“Personally, I am looking for a reason to hope that things will get better… I look forward to hearing more from ’08 graduates regarding what they chose to do if they were unable to find work in conservation, as well as if/how they were able to return to the field.” —Anonymous
Throughout the pandemic, ECPN has continued to provide resources to support compensation literacy, negotiation confidence, and equity. The workshop, Making the Ask: Developing Negotiation Tactics in the Field of Conservation, was first presented at AIC’s 48th (Virtual) Annual Meeting and is now a free self-study course provided by FAIC. In partnership with the Philadelphia Area Conservation Association (PACA), two webinars were shared on Professional Advocacy through Museum Unionization. ECPN officers have also continued adding to the ECPN Fellowship and Internship Compensation Spreadsheets, which contain a compilation of data from years of public advertisements. As ECPN reflects on the current usefulness of our compensation resources, we hope to improve and expand our program offerings moving forward.
ECPN Compensation Spreadsheets
Since 2015, ECPN has been compiling compensation data on fellowships and internships to supplement the overview report for the 2014 AIC/FAIC Conservation Compensation Research Survey. The purpose of collecting this data is two-fold: To increase transparency about typical fellowship/internship earnings and to provide a useful resource for early-career professionals. To request a copy of the compensation spreadsheets, please email the ECPN Chair at email@example.com.
Despite this being a year full of unprecedented firsts, many of the ECPN concerns surrounding access to the field and career opportunities echo those cited in the 2016 AIC News article. While the pandemic has addressed some of these issues by increasing access to educational online conservation content and fostering an environment where virtual networking can thrive, not all of these concerns have gained positive momentum.
As compared to the state of ECPN in 2016, I think a clearer and more comprehensive understanding now exists about systemic policies that prevent access, equity, and diversity in the field for ECPs. ECPS are challenging long-standing norms, such as requiring ECPs to relocate for unpaid or low paying opportunities or asking them to invest in extra classes to acquire new skills and gain a competitive edge. The pandemic has exacerbated financial instability and given us space to challenge these norms more fully. How do we relocate during a global pandemic? How do we gain experience when we are bound to our current geographic location? These questions illuminate the field we have cultivated, one which requires deep economic security to move from city to city and pay for extra education. These norms result in systemic barriers that limit diversity and equality in our chosen field. The pandemic has forced us all to become flexible and creative; perhaps it can also help us examine our field more closely and encourage long-lasting change. It is the goal of ECPN in the coming years to continue these important conversations through our programming and to help our members identify actionable changes. Ultimately, ECPN provides many emerging conservators around the world with a network they can use for support as we seek to explore, pursue, and succeed in the field of conservation. We are a resilient group, and we will continue to represent the needs of emerging professionals and support each other in a world that is currently full of much uncertainty.
—Jessica Betz Abel, Chair 2021-22, firstname.lastname@example.org, collaborating with Stakeholder Communities Session
Caitlin Richeson, Chair 2020-21, email@example.com
Jessica Betz Abel, Vice Chair 2020-21, firstname.lastname@example.org
Héctor J. Berdecía-Hernández, Communications Co-Officer 2020-2022, email@example.com
Ashley Stanford, Outreach Co-Officer 2020-2022, firstname.lastname@example.org
Keara Teeter, Professional Education and Training Co-Officer 2019-2021, email@example.com
The authors would like to thank the following contributors: Laura García-Vedrenne, Clair Emma Smith, LaStarsha McGarrity, Kasey Hamilton, Céline Wachsmuth, Anita Dey, Rio Lopez, Tamia Anaya, Nylah Byrd, Meris Westburg, and other anonymous contributors.