Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
I trained as an objects conservator at Winterthur and I’ve been working at the Midwest Art Conservation Center (MACC) in Minneapolis, MN, since 2006. I had a very formative post-graduate experience at the National Museum of the American Indian where I participated in several community consultations and worked with some amazing conservators, and I’ve tried to bring that philosophy of respecting the intangible aspects of cultural heritage to my work at the regional center. MACC serves so many different types of collections, large and small, and engaging with the owners or caretakers is really an essential part of understanding the needs of the artifact. I’ve found that when I begin with an attitude of collaboration and an open-ended “tell me about this object,” I learn a lot that can inform the treatment.
Why did you decide to focus on preventive conservation?
I began the transition to preventive conservation about five years ago. I always enjoyed teaching workshops for the Preventive Conservation department at MACC and an opportunity came up to assist on general needs assessment surveys. I found that I love the big picture thinking that goes into an assessment and about two years ago I made the transition to working exclusively in preventive conservation. It’s been a great opportunity for me to really grow as a conservator.
What tools or resources do you use most frequently on collection care projects?
It’s people skills I use most. Listening, really listening, and offering knowledge in a way that’s additive – rather than simply replacing what a caretaker may already know. Tangibly speaking, though, when I go offsite I wear a tool apron around my waist that holds the Elsec light meter, a tiny notebook and pencil, a flashlight, my cell phone, and I carry the psychrometer. I use my cell phone not just for the camera but also as a compass and a level. The bug identification app (I use “Picture Insect”) is also very handy. Sometimes it’s useful to be able to do minor treatment onsite, so I frequently bring my conservator’s toolkit. I don’t carry this around the site with me, but I have it ready if I need it. This has what you might expect, brushes of varying sizes, tweezers, microspatula, some scraps of Japanese tissue, Reemay, and Goretex, small bottles of ethanol, acetone, and water, and of course I wouldn’t be caught without a jar of B-72.
Please tell us about some successful collection care projects that you’ve worked on.
Collections care projects are a little like collections care itself. The results are frequently neither dramatic nor showy, but are felt profoundly after the passage of time. I worked on a site assessment last year for a collection that was housed in several historic structures completely without climate control. We had lots of talks about the effects of fluctuating temperature and humidity on different types of materials, about mold, and about insects. It was hard, because the historic context is so critical to the site. If I had gone in there and said “no, you can’t display things like this” it wouldn’t have gone anywhere. Instead we talked about identifying stable, durable, and replaceable materials as a study collection that could stay in the historic structures, and moving vulnerable, rare, and valuable artifacts into climate control. This organization is now doing a huge fund-raising campaign to build a climate-controlled visitor center.
What have been some of the biggest challenges in meeting collection care needs?
You might expect me to answer with “budget constraints,” but the biggest challenges for me are actually personal. Everything is worth preserving as long as someone wants to preserve it, but sometimes I see people holding onto things out of a fear of change. The hardest work for me right now is to use my position of privilege and power to encourage inclusivity in public collecting practices without alienating caretakers that don’t necessarily share that perspective, or without overstepping my role as preventive conservator.
You’ve been involved in the preservation of the George Floyd Memorial. What role did collections care play in this work?
The preservation effort began after a rainstorm last June left many of the signs (most of them made of cardboard) wet, dirty, and damaged. Around the same time, a well-meaning individual began to clean the old flowers and threw many of them away before community members stopped her and pulled them out of the trash. People were aggrieved at the thought of the offerings becoming garbage, and so the directive to save everything because everything is someone’s offering became manifest. They asked “how can we take care of these things?” and I gave them some suggestions based on my training and experience. Through their commitment and dedication, now, almost one year later, the George Floyd Global Memorial is a 501(c)3 nonprofit with over 2,500 offerings and a pop-up exhibition scheduled to open later this month.
Nicole and colleagues triaging signs left at the memorial for George Floyd.
How did collaboration with the local community support this work?
The community *is* this work! They started it and the volunteer caretakers, led by the incredible Jeanelle Austin, continue to run triage on offerings that have become damaged by rain or physical forces, bring them inside for air-drying, do light surface-cleaning, and ultimately inventory, number, and house them for temporary storage until they can be returned to display. It is an honor and privilege to work alongside them.
What can the conservation field do to support equity and inclusion in collection care?
To answer this I can only share what I am doing and what I try to do. I look for ways to do preservation work wherever it needs to be done, inside or outside a museum. I don’t need a lab to be a conservator. I advocate for paid pre-program internship experiences – right now we are using part of an NEH grant to support a Fellow working with the George Floyd Global Memorial for 12 weeks - and I actively pursue relationships with educators, counselors, neighbors, anyone who can connect me with individuals from groups historically not in control of their representation.
Any other thoughts you would like to share?
Consider this as a conservation objective: to teach and empower people to care for their own cultural heritage. I have seen that caring for materials of one’s own culture – hands work like sorting and cleaning and documenting - is enormously healing after community trauma. At George Floyd Global Memorial preservation is protest, and in addition to the directive that everything is somebody’s offering the caretakers have a second defining principle: people are more important than artifacts. As a conservator, I have certainly benefited from this reminder.