Collection Care Network Interview: Karen Pavelka, 2020 AIC Award Winner


This is a transcript of an interview with Karen Pavelka, winner of the 2020 AIC Rutherford John Gettens Award, conducted by the Collection Care Network’s Kelly Krish on August 19, 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. 

Karen Pavelka



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. My name is Kelly Krish. I'm the editor for the Collection Care Network with AIC and joining us today is Karen Pavelka. Karen is the recipient of this year’s Rutherford John Gettens Award, which is bestowed for outstanding service to AIC. Karen is the Senior Lecturer for preventive conservation in the School of Information at The University of Texas at Austin. She has served as the AIC Education and Training Committee Chair and Board Director of Professional Education. She is a founding member of the Paper Conservation Education Group and is also a former member of the Collection Care Network.  So thank you for joining us today, Karen. 

Karen Pavelka: Happy to be here. 


Krish: So I think we'll just go ahead and get started with our first question, which is (hopefully it's something that we all are somewhat familiar with) but just want to hear from you, too. Why is it important for conservators and preservation professionals to be engaged in continued professional development?

Pavelka: Well, I think that's important for any profession, of course. With conservation and preservation, we have the added complication that materials and our understanding of materials changes so quickly. If you think about it, things that are in our collections now were not even invented perhaps five years ago, especially when you start looking at things like electronic media. So we're sort of forced into it whether we want to or not and it's just good practice overall.


Krish: So is that part of what helped in...obviously you recognized and supported a need for workshops and scholarships in the field. Did it come from that appreciation of the introduction of new materials or were there other experiences or factors that kind of highlighted the importance for you?

Pavelka: I suppose that came out of an understanding of how much I need to learn. I teach. One of my classes depends a lot on teaching photographic materials. I'm not a photo conservator, never will be. But I incorporate a lot of information about photo materials into my materials class and I teach a class on photographic materials. And I've always told my students, this is quite true, that the more I learn about photographic materials, the less I know. When I started teaching this in my materials class, I thought I knew quite a bit about it. And then as I started reading more and more about it and started paying attention to what the [AIC] Photo Materials Group is doing, I realized I don't know anything. [laughs] I think if I have that feeling, other people may not feel it quite as strongly, but I know that we all have quite a bit to learn.


Krish: It’s a good experience when the more you learn about something, the more you realize there are questions there. I guess one of the things we can touch on is, obviously you've been deeply involved in education. Are there ways that AIC or the conservation field as a whole can better address education needs?

Pavelka: I think AIC is doing a phenomenal job with that and I've seen it really grow and expand over the last couple of decades. One of the reasons it has is because Eric Pourchot [AIC Institutional Advancement Director] show has done so much to advance things and Eryl [Wentworth, Executive Director of AIC and FAIC], of course, is completely behind him. So it's just been a very strong effort in AIC and I think we're doing an excellent job with that. I continue to see what the education sector is doing, and I'm amazed. I'm just really pleased and amazed at how well everything's going.


Krish: One of the aspects of education in particular, that's kind of a topic that's been in the news a lot lately, is the importance of equity and inclusion. And I know you mentioned, you know, social sustainability in your [award acceptance] speech and how that one of the values you have for conservation is because it's preserved the records and that's how you know about the past and everything. So, what do you see as the role of the conservation professional in addressing some of these issues? I know that's a really broad question. So feel free to take it in any direction you'd like or however you'd like to address that. 

Pavelka: Well, and obviously, again, this is not limited just to conservation. It’s something that we’re facing as a society, which is great to see, because it has been an underlying issue for a long time. It's nice to see it more in the forefront. When I talked about the history of my neighborhood and how that's evolved over the years, what I was getting at there, and when it came to an end, is that that information is in libraries and archives. One of the frustrations that many of us have with the field of conservation is libraries and archives are often given a short shrift. [laughs] We’re much more concerned with museums and the sort of fancier end of things. Our profession could not exist without libraries and archives because we wouldn't have the information we need and I think that's true of pretty much every aspect of our lives. So that's sort of what I was getting at with that. Yes, I have strong political views about all of that, but we'll leave that for another time.


Krish: I think it's good too especially in these days, and so many libraries being closed, or at least having limited service [due to the COVID-19 pandemic], it's good to remember their importance and you know, the value of all those collections inside when we can return to using them actively. So with regards to that, speaking about the importance of libraries and recognizing the role they play in our profession, are there any particular qualities or techniques that you think make for an effective advocate, especially when we're talking about something, for example, library materials where so much of the collection may not be seen by people in an exhibit situation?

Pavelka: Yeah, I think to be an advocate, first of all, you have to have a natural curiosity to want to understand a situation and all its complexities. Then you need to understand your own bias and what you're looking for and why. Then you need to be able to listen to other people and understand their viewpoint and when it differs from your own, be able to communicate and balance things out. And then, you need to be able to speak up and speak up loudly and effectively, and not scream and yell, but present your case and be willing to negotiate. That's not something that comes easily to people who may have gone into conservation thinking they were going to spend 100% of their time at the bench, [laughs] which is never going to happen and never was going to happen. But, you know, we all have that; that's why we all get into the field, because it's fun.


Krish: Can you can you speak about, were there any particular experiences that you found particularly rewarding for you either within education or advocacy where you felt like it was just a really good project or just feel really proud of the way things turned out?

Pavelka: Oh, there have been a lot of moments when I've been incredibly proud and a lot when I thought, “hmm could’ve done that better.” [laughs] That's just the reality. I guess one of my favorite moments teaching-- I don't teach conservation students. I teach school students at the School of Information at large and most of the students who take my class tend to be humanities majors and not necessarily strong in math or science. So I present a lot of technical information to them and it's a little scary for them. So I intersperse it with a lot of party tricks. You know, you do the Beilstein test and burn a copper wire and some plastic and it turns green and everybody goes, “Ooh!”, and besides, you know, they get to burn things and we burn plastics. One of the things I'll do is put one Pyrex beaker inside another and if you fill it with Wesson oil you can make the smaller beaker disappear because they have the same refractive index, which again, you know, just make students go, “Whoa!” [laughs]

Krish: I hadn’t heard that one before. That's pretty cool! 

Pavelka: It’s fun. It has to be Wesson oil, it doesn't work with other brands. But, one year when I was doing that, one of my students said, “Whoa, science is fun! I didn't have to be a humanities major!” [laughs] And I just loved it. Another time, you know, we were talking about plastics and, you know, all the pitfalls of plastics and how they deteriorate and how solvents migrate through them and you know, all of that. And one of my students said, “But I have a huge collection of plastic objects. You've just ruined my life!” [laughs]

Krish: It’s good they understood how much it takes to preserve plastics.

Pavelka: But working with students has just been an absolute joy.


Krish: What has been, what has been one of the biggest challenges in teaching preventive conservation to such a wide range of students?

Pavelka: The initial challenge is letting people recognize that it's important and it's not addressed. One of the normal questions I get is, “Well, aren't they already taking care of that?” People generally don't think about the fragility of objects and what it takes to keep them in good order, to keep them from deteriorating. So that's new, when they realize that that plastic object is not going to last for eons. In some cases, you might be able to intervene and in some cases, it's going to be lost no matter what you do and to understand how expensive it is to take care of all this stuff. Because there's a mindset, if you're not in our field, that well, we have it, it's right there, you know, just keep it and it's fine. So presenting the complexity and then letting people see that the role of preservation isn't just for those of us in the field, but it's everyone's responsibility. If they want things to last, they're going to have to help me monitor and dust things and keep things clean and write budgets and all the rest of it. So, you know, it's sometimes a revelation to people to understand that. Sorry, that's not completely articulate. [laughs]


Krish: No, that makes sense. I was interested too, Karen, your position strikes me as somewhat unique with being nested within the School of Information and teaching preventive conservation. Can you share anything about how it is that you have found such a unique position and been able to offer these services to so many students? 

Pavelka: Well, we did have a conservation program years ago. It was the program that moved down from Columbia. It was founded by Paul Banks. Eventually moved down to Texas, and for a number of reasons, that program ended. But as it ended, we were building beautiful new conservation labs [laughs]. So we have these gorgeous labs and I realized it was an incredible opportunity to open conservation up to a wider audience. And so I started just advertising the conservation classes and saying, “This is open to everyone and I'm not going to teach you anything about solvents. I'm not going to teach you, you know, anything where you'd need a chemistry background to actually take the courses. But I can teach you all a whole lot about materials and preservation and collections care.” So that's what we're doing and it’s been really fun.


Krish: In terms of your AIC work, obviously you've made major contributions to the AIC community. Do you have any advice for people who may be interested in becoming more involved in AIC but hesitant abou how to do so or what it might look like being involved?

Pavelka: Oh, just do it. Just jump in and do it. All someone can do is tell you “no.” It's probably not the first time in your life you've been told no. AIC is a really welcoming organization to work with, which has changed. When I first got into the field, it was actually a bit more scary than it is now and I think people were a little more judgmental 20 years ago and 30 years ago than they are now. I think that as we've become more secure with our knowledge and with our profession in general that we've become more open and more welcoming. So, I think it's actually a pretty easy organization to get involved with. Just pick the committee that sounds interesting to you, write them a letter, and ask you if you can be involved. And there's always a lot of work to be done. I doubt that you're going to be turned away.


Krish: That sounds good. And I guess just one other question too, being as involved in education and AIC as you’ve been--this is really broad but--how do you see preventive conservation evolving or continuing to play a role in future years?

Pavelka: I'm so happy we've gone in this direction. I can't tell you how happy it makes me. Back in the dark ages when I was in conservation school, as I said, Paul Banks founded the program that I went through and later taught in. He was very, very involved with collections care and preventive conservation, even if we weren't exactly calling it then. He had us doing collection surveys and looking at broad things. And so going into conservation, I think I was the only one in my class who really wanted to work with circulating collections, not just the rare book end of things. Oddly enough, I ended up with HRC [Harry Ransom Center], which is about the most [laughs] rarefied existence. But, what can you do, the gods like to laugh at you. But one of my biggest concerns with AIC for years had been that we weren't preserving the cultural heritage, we were preserving the cultural heritage for the people who could afford it. That's never been my focus or where my heart really is. As we've jumped into collections care with CCN and with Connecting to Collections, all of those efforts and outreaches are just wonderful. And I'm thrilled that our profession is going in that direction. Because there's more, you know, than just the prestigious stuff.


Krish: Well, I think that's a really good note to end on. So we wanted to thank you so much for joining us.