(General) A Failure Shared is Not a Failure: Learning from Our Mistakes


A reflection on a great session, by Jen Munch and Suzanne Davis

Jen Munch
Graduate Fellow in Art Conservation, SUNY Buffalo State College and Graduate Intern in Paintings Conservation, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

One of my favorite experiences during the 2019 AIC Annual Meeting was attending the second annual “Mistakes” event, “A Failure Shared is Not a Failure: Learning from our Mistakes.” This lunchtime event took place in a large ballroom and was well-attended, completely selling out of tickets. Each of the presenters shared a mistake or mistakes they have made at some point in their career. Some of the mistakes were decades old, and some occurred just weeks prior. Several of the speakers mentioned that the crowd of attendees was much larger than they had envisioned. Despite the large turnout, the event was relatively informal, with an air of openness and acceptance.

As an early-career conservator, I found this event to be both meaningful and healthy. Everyone has made mistakes. I am sure that many of us have made a mistake that seemed so big at the time that they thought their conservation career would swiftly end. During early career stages, particularly the pre-program stage, mistakes can make you feel incompetent, and even approaching a supervisor to report your mistake can be intimidating. When I was at that stage, not too long ago, each of my own mistakes were oversized in my mind. It is valuable to hear about others’ mistakes, as mistakes are all too human.   

This event made it evident that as we progress throughout our professional careers, mistakes will still happen. Sometimes, big mistakes will happen. Talking about our mistakes is cathartic. In some cases, the airing of mistakes also provides comic relief. Many of the mistakes shared in this forum were funny, in hindsight.

One particularly funny mistake involved the delivery of an oversized sculpture to a museum, from a lender. The artwork would fit through the museum’s doors, but its travel crate would not. For this reason, the conservator in charge planned to uncrate the artwork in the street outside of the museum, and then have the artwork itself carried in. Every contingency had been planned for, except for one: no one had asked the lender how the sculpture would be packed. It was slightly raining, but there were plans to cover the sculpture as it was walked indoors. Out on the street, the side of the crate was removed, and out spilled a huge white cloud of packing material—corn-based packing peanuts that immediately became sticky and attached to the undersides of shoes, to the street, everywhere. The mistake here was in not communicating one small but vital detail- how the artwork would be packed within its crate.

Another speaker mentioned the painstaking work they had done during a post-graduate fellowship to re-string an ancient necklace with over a thousand tiny beads. Each bead was counted and its original position recorded. After stringing the beads onto monofilament (fishing wire), but before securing the ends, the fellow lifted up the necklace by the two ends to admire their handiwork. Monofilament is slippery, and they lost their grip, sending the beads falling to the floor and scattering everywhere. In this case, the speaker shared that the rest of their lab tiptoed out of the room and that they were left alone for hours to collect each and every last bead.

One speaker made the point that if you make a mistake, it is important to self-evaluate and to listen to the advice of your knowledgeable colleagues; otherwise, you risk compounding the mistake by continuing to make poor choices. In this case, the ‘mistake’ involved the conservator’s decision to have a plinth installed under a display of furniture in the center of a museum gallery. The plinth was added to prevent patrons from bumping into and damaging the furniture on display. Unfortunately, it had the opposite effect, as a patron tripped over the corner of the plinth, and fell onto the furniture. Luckily, the patron was not physically injured. The conservator had the plinth redesigned, and another incident occurred before the conservator took the advice of colleagues in the security department, and removed the plinths for visitors’ safety.

Recently, I was escorting a family member around the conservation lab where I am an intern. Amazed by the complexity of the ongoing conservation treatments, and by the responsibility we bear, she asked, “What happens when you make a mistake?” Remembering this mistakes session, I said, “We talk about it. And then we fix it.”

Suzanne Davis
Associate Curator and Head of Conservation, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

I’m in full agreement with Jen that attending this session was one of the best and most enjoyable things I did at the 2019 meeting (and I do a lot of stuff at the meeting, because I’m its program chair). The session featured all kinds of conservation mistakes, from errors in data interpretation, to mouth-siphoning a lye solution, to what were, in retrospect for the speaker, ill-considered life choices. It’s pretty hard to top the lye solution story, and yet....

Although I enjoyed every talk, my hands-down favorite for a beautiful, instructive, and hilarious delivery was Kathy Gillis’ talk about a shocking lab accident involving a bronze figurine and a sampling attempt gone wrong. Kathy told this story honestly and illustrated it well, allowing us to experience the emotional roller coaster she must have felt on the day in question: abject horror, resigned acceptance, and - eventually - at least partial redemption in the form of a silver lining for the research scholars she was assisting. 

Another fantastic talk, by Michele Marincola, also made a big impression on me. Michele offered a brief yet satisfying social science study of error, detailing different types of mistakes. I immediately began classifying my own many errors by this typology. This was a surprisingly useful exercise, since understanding the kinds of mistakes I’ve made helps me identify how, when, and why my thinking is prone to go wrong (Or, I hope it will!). If you’re interested in reading more, you are in luck because Michele has written an article on this subject and you can download it from her academia.edu page. Thank you, conservators who publish!!! 

To mention just one more talk, Mary Oey made a well-considered and persuasive argument for conservators to use first-person active voice when writing treatment reports. As she emphasized, it makes your report’s syntax clearer and the language easier for others to understand, while encouraging reflection. When you’re not hiding behind the veil of third-person, and it is clear that you are the actor - the agent of change (and possibly the agent of chaos) - you’re more likely to give greater detail when things fail to go as you’d planned. 

2019 was the second year for this session, and I hope its popularity is an indicator that we conservators are becoming more reflective in our practice and more willing to admit, dissect, and discuss our mistakes. This is a common practice in many disciplines, but we’ve come to it slowly in middle-age, at least at the AIC meeting (which turned 47 this year). This session asks us to make ourselves vulnerable, to tell uncomfortable stories about ourselves and our work, and to be honest about the raw emotions that can result from being responsible for the care and well-being of someone else’s creation. If I had to describe this session in one word, it would be cathartic. Be brave - come tell us about one of your mistakes in 2020. #AICmtg19