Collection Care Network Interview: M. Susan Barger, 2020 AIC Award Winner

This is a transcript of an interview with M. Susan Barger, winner of the 2020 AIC David Magoon University Products Conservation Advocacy Award, conducted by the Collection Care Network’s Kelly Krish on August 13, 2020. The video version of the interview can be found here on AIC's YouTube channel. The video and transcript have been edited for length and clarity. 
M. Susan Barger (Image courtesy of Barger)   M. Susan Barger


Mary Coughlin: Hello. My name is Mary Coughlin and I’m Chair of the American Institute for Conservation’s Collection Care Network, abbreviated CCN. CCN was created in recognition of the critical importance of preventive conservation as the most effective means of promoting the long-term preservation of cultural property. This means managing risks to prevent damage to collections, keeping temperature, relative humidity, and light levels at safe ranges, keeping pests out of collections, putting good policies in place to make sure collections are inventoried, secure, and handled properly, and much, much more. In this way, museum collections, historic sites, and archival holdings can be made accessible not just today, but for many years in the future.

The following video is one of three interviews that CCN conducted with the 2020 AIC Award recipients whose work specifically focuses on collection care. If you’re interested in learning more about CCN, please visit and search for Collection Care Network. We strive to support the growing number of conservators and collection care professionals with strong preventive responsibilities and interests, so we always have many projects for you to be involved in. Thanks for watching!


Kelly Krish: Hi, everyone. Thank you for joining us. I'm Kelly Krish and I'm the Editor for the Collection Care Network, which is the part of AIC responsible for collections care. Joining me today is Susan Barger, who is the recipient of this year's David Magoon University Products Conservation Advocacy Award, which honors conservation professionals who have advanced the field of conservation and furthered the cause of conservation through substantial efforts in outreach and advocacy, which I think we can all agree Susan has certainly done. Susan is a consultant for small museums and archives. As a research scientist, Susan has delved into the chemistry of photographs and has written three books on the subject in addition to many other publications. She's taught undergraduate and graduate level courses in conservation science, the science of art materials, and the care of museum collections. She co-founded a nonprofit field services organization, Museum Development Associates, whose mission is to provide professional development training for small cultural institutions. She has also served as coordinator for Connecting to Collections Care, so her voice will sound familiar to many of us who have enjoyed the webinars and workshops over the years. 

So thank you, Susan. I really appreciate this opportunity to talk to you about some of your experiences in the field and any advice you can share for the rest of us to be effective advocates. So I think first, maybe the best place to start is can you tell us why it is so important to be an advocate for collections care within the AIC community as well as to broader audiences?

Susan Barger: Well, I suppose the answer to that is if we're working with collections, our job is taking care of those collections, and so we have to advocate for the monies to do that because those are always left out. Somehow if you have a museum or you have, libraries are a little bit better, or archives, the funding for those activities of care are often just not even considered. Or, they're considered in a way that it means buying more boxes [laughs] or more envelopes, but not necessarily doing the kinds of things that would be overall care, like taking care of the building or making sure that you have storage that isn’t full of bugs. 


Krish: So making sure the budget and the policies of the institution are kind of more comprehensive for collections care. 

Barger: Yeah, but in small institutions, often they don't have even those kinds of policies. So I mean, in small institutions, collections care, as I learned, means everything. It means having a board that functions, it means making sure that people have training opportunities and that they're not penalized if they take advantage of them, that they have resources, that they have some kind of support. So it's a lot of things. You know, just, you know, a lot of times conservators were the harbingers of “no, you can't. You shouldn't touch things. You shouldn't do this.” But actually, you know, people want to take care of their collections and they're very eager to learn better ways to do it and that's really part of our job.


Krish: So it sounds like a lot of balancing and a lot of creative thinking to have projects be effective and please multiple stakeholders.

Barger: Yeah, and my idea with these small institutions was that I wanted them to be a little bit better every year. I wasn't going to go in and say, “well, you need to do this and this.” I also helped them figure out how they could collaborate with other people so they could do projects that they needed to do. But I, you know, I had a feeling for the people I was dealing with. And sometimes, you know, that meant I needed to just keep my mouth shut and figure out a way to solve a problem.


Krish: So maybe this is a good time: in your acceptance speech, you gave some great advice on choosing the most interesting and adventuresome option and to consider everything an experiment. And it sounds like some rewarding experiences for you have been bringing these collaborative projects together and having people doing work that they feel really satisfied with. And so I was just wondering if you could share either specifics or qualities of what has made your career in collections care most rewarding for you?

Barger: Well, I think one of the things that a lot of people don't know that I worked on was adobe. When I first got back to New Mexico from being in the East (and I was a horrible Easterner), but I came home and I wasn't quite sure what I was going to do here. And I went around and I asked people what they want me to work on. I said, you know, “I'm a material scientist” and they all said, “Oh, please work on adobe” and I thought, “Oh, give me a break.” [laughs] I just couldn't think of anything worse. Well, there was a big international meeting on adobe and I went and I figured out that there was a problem that interested me that wasn't being worked on and that was the durability of adobe plasters. And so I thought, “Well, that would be interesting to work on.” 

So, I got some money from NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] and I got hooked up with Cornerstones [Cornerstones Community Partnerships (] and they were working on churches. I petitioned the [Catholic] Archdiocese of New Mexico to analyze adobe plasters that came off of buildings. The old plasters were being thrown in the arroyo [gully or wash], but I still had to ask permission. I would go out and plaster buildings and I would analyze these plasters. I also did oral history interviews with the enjarradoras [women plasterers] because plastering was, until very recently, done by women. I also read up on what people said about plasters. For instance, I had these plasters that were full of organic stuff and the anthropologists [who] had interviewed enjarradoras at the turn of the 20th century [had] said, “You put manure in these?” and [the women] would say, “Yes.” But, you know, what I was looking at didn't seem to be right. When I was doing these oral history interviews, the place that had the strongest plaster was full of organic stuff and I knew it couldn't possibly have been manure. And so I asked this old lady and she said, “Oh, we would never use that. I mean that would be awful. It would be gross.” [She said] they were getting, basically, compost from the bottom of arroyo ditches and that's what they were putting in their plasters. The thing that made these plasters really strong was that they [the organic materials] would [over time] form humic acids that would drink up carbon dioxide from the air and form natural limes and it made them [the plasters] last a long time. The report that I wrote for NEA kept getting passed around. So, I'd go places and they'd say, “Oh, we have this report.” But they never realized it was done by a woman, [laughs] which is kind of funny. I’d say, “Well, that's me.” 

So, actually, the work that I did on adobe kept coming back. I was able to go to CRAterre, the center for research on earthen architecture in France and because of that - one of the other people in my group was from Mexico - so I did work in Mexico. So, I got to do a lot of things. I also learned there about examining architecture and figuring out things that could happen in buildings made me much more effective when I was dealing with architectural conservators on CAPs [Collections Assessment for Preservation program] and also when I was going out working with small museums trying to figure out problems, infrastructure problems that they were having that were mostly bad maintenance. So, that had a big effect. But it's not something I would have really chosen had I not had a little push.


Krish: Your story actually illustrated this quite well. But I don't know if you had any other thoughts on how conservation can better serve small institutions and other underserved communities? You talked about the importance of professional development opportunities for them. Is that something that you feel the field needs to make more accessible or have more opportunities or do you have other thoughts on that?

Barger: For a long time both when I was doing stuff for the state [of New Mexico] and then, after we formed Museum Development, we were doing lots of training. New Mexico is the fifth largest state in the nation and so, if you have a workshop one place, even if it seems it might be centrally located, people might have to travel six or eight hours to get to a workshop. And then that means they might also have to spend the night or two. So, even though we usually charged [very little], we would find money to basically support the workshops. We had people coming to us and saying, “I can't afford to go to workshops because we can't afford to travel. Can't you do them without travel?” Or they would also say, “My board won't let me come to workshops because I might be away for two days, and they don't have anything to show. I don't have anything to show when I get back that I got this training.” So that was one of the reasons why we started Small Museum Pro!, which is now part of AASLH [American Association for State and Local History]. To get that started, I applied for money at IMLS [Institute of Museum and Library Services], which we did not get because they said we didn't have the capacity, which was probably true. I also lobbied the legislature. I became a registered lobbyist [laughs] and I'd have to make my report about that $5 I spent to lobby every year.

Krish: I didn't realize you had registered as a lobbyist, even. That's really taking advocacy far.

Barger: Well, in order to talk to people in the legislature, I had to register. I was able to get money from the legislature that enabled us to start Small Museum Pro! through Eastern New Mexico University, which happened to have one of the oldest distance education programs in the country. That program, basically, helped us solve the distance problem and also, because we could use the certification through Eastern New Mexico, people could get a certificate. If they did all the classes, there were five classes; they would get something that said they were a Small Museum Pro. And when Museum Development went out of business, we basically gave that to AASLH. And it's still running! I'm really pleased about it.


Krish: That's wonderful! I think that also gets to how should we be working to evolve professional development opportunities into the future to better serve a wide variety of needs and to reach everyone?

Barger: Well, I think that programs like Connecting to Collections Care (which is one of the reasons why I wanted to run it) can provide a lot of assistance and I see that a lot of other institutions are now providing distance learning. I think [it is important to] ask people what it is that they need and to really understand what it is that they're telling you that they need. Because a lot of times you'll say, “Well, do you need X?” and they'll say, “Oh, yeah!” because they are afraid to say, “No, I really need Y.” You need to try to figure out what they're saying their needs are and what their needs really are and how you can [help the institution to] fulfill [those needs.] When AIC took over Connecting to Collections Care and CAP, those are really the first two programs that AIC had that were reaching out of the profession, reaching to non-conservation types. At first, people were thinking that Connecting to Collections Care would be an employment opportunity for emerging professionals and I just say, “I'm really happy if that happens, but that's not our audience. Our audience is these people outside of the profession.” And I’d beat that drum a lot. [laughs]


Krish: I think that might be a good place to end. Thank you so much for your time and for sharing that. I feel like I learned a lot from hearing about your experiences and everything. That was really interesting. So I really appreciate you speaking with us and taking the time.