Transcript of episode Charlie Costain: scientist and heritage advocate
Episode length: 00:36:49
[Music: “We Don’t Know How it Ends” by Lee Rosevere from the album “Music for Podcasts 6.” Style: Electronic Minimalism]
Charlie Costain (CC): You know, it’s just incredible the intelligence and the focus that the staff have on the work that they’re doing.
On a daily basis, when you walk in and see what people are doing, I’m gobsmacked by what they can achieve.
Nathalie Nadeau Mijal (NNM): I’m Nathalie Nadeau Mijal and this is CCI and CHIN: In Our Words.
For those of you who have visited the Canadian Conservation Institute, you’ll know that right above the front door there is a large statue of a sea captain-- our mascot in a way. However, for any of you have worked at or with CCI over the past several years, you’ll know that we also had a real life mascot-- a living and breathing Mr. CCI-- who is otherwise known as Charlie Costain. From starting out as a conservator and moving through the ranks to become a manager and a director, Charlie took on new challenges with interest and curiosity. In March of 2019, Charlie Costain retired from CCI and he joined Kelly Johnson and me for a retrospective interview on his career. One final housekeeping note before we start: If you hear one of us mention the acronym, RCSS-- it stands for Research, Conservation, and Scientific Services. So, without further ado, here’s Kelly Johnson…
Kelly Johnson (KJ): All right, Mr. CCI it's funny because when I arrived here at CCI that's that's how you were referred to. But it's true, you are Mr. CCI. You've been around for quite a few years. But I'd like us to go back and start from the beginning if you wouldn't mind. So, I know you have a bachelor's degree in chemistry. Somebody, a friend, told you about the Masters of Art Conservation at Queen's what brought your interest into conservation what how did that connection happen?
CC: So, yeah, when I was at Queen's and there actually had been a lecturer that had come down, Jim Hanlan, who was working at the National Gallery at that time the scientist came down and gave a lecture at Queen's and I thought, “Well, geez, that sounded like a really interesting field,” but it was my high school friend who was in the art education program at Queen's doing his bachelor's and he'd heard of the art conservation program and he came over to see me because they needed chemistry prerequisites so he came over to and we talked about chemistry prerequisites I said, “Sounds fascinating,” and he said, “Well, actually they're having a science stream too,” and so that led to a discussion with Ian Hodkinson. The program was just starting the next year and eventually I ended up doing my masters in chemistry but I took all of the electives with the art conservation students. So it was and did my masters in a archaeology sort of direction so it was it was just good timing and an amazing kind of segue into the field.
KJ: That’s interesting. Did you know much about conservation before that?
CC: No, I think just the normal childhood fascination with-- I grew up here in Ottawa so I can remember going to the Museum of--what's now the Museum of Nature-- and a lot of display cabinets at that time and quite static but you always wanted to know what was going on behind those closed doors. So there was always that kind of fascination in curiosity and I think that's part of what-- when I heard about it I thought, well you know this is just such an incredible field that bringing together science and the history and art and there's not a lot of opportunities for that and just seemed so fascinating and I haven't regretted it for one second.
KJ: That’s always nice to hear. So you went from, I guess, your master’s to Parks Canada. Was that your first position?
CC: Yes, and actually, so my master's was done in conjunction with an archaeologist at Parks and so had some connection through that and then of course timing is everything so I was through in the first in the first graduating class of art conservation and there were positions open at that time for most of us because conservation was just a new thing that was coming in. The only conservators that they'd had-- so CCI that time had a training program and some of the people like Bob Barclay and Tom Stone came through that, but a lot of the conservators had come from Europe at that time. So Canada was just beginning to produce its own trained people in the field and so yeah so went to Parks and worked there in their science lab for eight years mostly on archaeological materials from Red Bay and from shipwrecks and so on. So, again that was a really interesting introduction to the field.
KJ: So we talked about how you worked in conservation sciences and I was just wondering how long did you what did you work in that before progressing into management because we all know that you've been at the management level for at various levels for quite some time but I never knew exactly how many years you spent working in the labs.
CC: Right, so well one of the opportunities I had which was which was very I was very lucky to have was in 1986 I had the opportunity to go and work at a laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland for about four months with François Schweitzer and so again that was an opportunity to see how a different lab operated but also really to see how well sort of everything that we learned at here in Canada and how applicable what was and very consistent with what was going on elsewhere in the world. So that was that was a terrific cultural opportunity and also a growth area for me and then so I think I was back from that for a year so when there was an opening that that opened up in what was at that time called the Environment and Deterioration Research Group and so that was a group with Stefan Michalski and Jane Down, Paul Marcon and so the science group and the manager of that had become director of the treatment labs and so there was an opening so I acted in that for a little while and then got the position on a permanent basis. So, that must have been about 1987 I think.
KJ: I mean, fairly early on in your career though?
CC: Yes, yeah. I think Chuck Gruchy was just coming in this director general and so one of those things where yeah people get moved around and there's an opportunity to try it out and see if I liked it and see if they liked me and that seemed to work okay.
KJ: So, since in 1987 you’ve been at the management level or higher?
CC: Yeah I've been in management since then so yeah exactly
NNM: How did you find that transition?
CC: Well I certainly was nervous about it because I'd come from the analytical lab into a lab with a number of scientists that we're working in a different area Stefan, Paul I had Tom Strang when I was there for a while and then after that Jean Tétreault so that that core team but Stefan, Stefan I'd known actually at Queen's and obviously I mean he was a thought leader even then and so I was I was had some nervousness but going in and talking to them-- they were very generous and they said, “Yeah, we needed a new manager we're happy to have you here there was initiation process that they put me through which there may even be videos around which consisted of a vibration table as I recall which made me feel slightly nauseous and so yes this is this is kind of welcomed by God but it was very good-natured and so I felt very welcomed and I was talking to have that kind of reception.
KJ: That’s interesting. I’m intrigued. Initiation on a vibration table… Ok, so at what at what point did you realize after being a manager that you wanted to stay in that what made you stay in management positions for the rest of your career?
CC: Well I can't think there was a particular moment it's a little bit when you take that step it's a little bit of a path of no return. Because, I mean you lose your lab skills after a little bit and you know you're not involved in the literature to the same level and well and quite frankly I guess, I mean the interest changed too. So, once you become a manager and start looking at things from a government point of view and a corporate point of view and that's also-- it's fascinating to see how organizations can change and how you can direct an organization and transform organizations and so there's ongoing challenges there but it's in a completely different field and whether you do that by command or by persuasion in different management styles and so on. It's always fascinated me in terms of that kind of organizational behavior and how you can achieve organizational goals and get everyone going in the same direction and so on. So, the more that I worked in that area, the more I learned things and found out things from other people and so it's really something that's fascinated me and I found very rewarding to work in that area.
KJ: That’s a very good lead, because one of the questions that I wrote is-- I would like us to talk about how do you see the evolution of CCI over the years. How do you feel things have evolved?
CC: There's sort of two ways to talk about that and I guess the first one that is in the overall corporate governance style in the 1990s there was there was cutbacks across the government with-- in the Chrétien government where they wanted to tame the deficit so there were cutbacks across the board and at that time, I believe our director general and so on was brought downtown and was told that they had to cut X amount of $100,000 in budget and for whatever reason he said, “We can make revenue instead.” So he made a commitment to the ADM that CCI would start generating revenue. At that time, we were probably making about $35,000 revenue a year and selling some minor publications and then he came back and told the management team, “We've got to make revenue. We've got to find a way to make money,” and so again just I was fortunate I had been at a conference where I'd heard a speaker from the Ontario Science Center talk about a transformative experience they'd had in kind of using their own people to transform their organization and so I got in touch with him, which put us in touch with this consultant that they'd used and with that consultant, it really changed the whole nature of the organization. We had at one time about 12 working groups working in areas from policy to monitoring, visioning, all sorts of different aspects of what the organization should be. Kind of rethinking the organization. Before that I recall when we first started working with this consultant and he said, well how good is CCI how are you looked at by your clients and we said “Well, we think it's pretty good,” and he said, “No, how do you know that?” We'd never done any surveying and so the mere thought of surveying your clients and asking them what they thought of you was quite frankly, terrifying because you've never done it before and you weren't quite sure you wanted to go there and the government was not there at all. But, through that whole exercise it transformed CCI from being an area where everyone was kind of doing their part and felt that they were doing things well, to an organization that was that had goals. It had objectives. It had measures in place to see how it was going and so it was really-- it created a tool and a very and a great deal of collaboration in coming up with all these different aspects. So, I mean David Grattan, James Bourdeau, Jane Sirois, they all lead some of these different working groups and different aspects and then pulling that all together, it made CCI different organization. After that, we tried all sorts of ways to generate revenues. A lot of them failed, but the one that has stuck of course has been the Heritage Interiors work, specifically with Public Works where there's some where there's architectural major capital projects and that is one area where there are funds available and we can play, CCI, can play a valuable role so that came out of that whole exercise as well but it transformed the way that the whole organization saw itself and did business.
KJ: And the morale? Did that affect the morale much?
CC: Well we had a group that was focused on morale and so that was another-- we did for the first time and again this before the government start doing this but doing internal morale surveys every three months to see how people were doing. There was a great deal of excitement and so on when people were engaged. There was a big letdown at the end of that when everyone was kind of okay now you have to go back and do your own work you're no longer… So, people I think we're excited to be involved in decisions about where's the organization going to go and so on but of course long-term that's a management role and so there was inevitably I think, a feeling of letdown and disconnect when all of a sudden the vast majority of staff weren't involved in those kind of daily discussions after having been really immersed in it for an intense period of about six months. So, that was amazing. So that's in the governance side. The other big, big change that I've seen is in the area of preventive conservation because when I started in conservation there was the museum environment. Gary Thompson had written this book that talked a lot about relative humidity a little bit about temperature and about light and that was seen as the museum environment but then it really, when I was manager of EDR and there was this Canadian conservation conference coming up and about two days before we were due to go there, Stefan appeared with this great big sheet of paper where he put down basically agents of deterioration and that came from him going out and looking in institutions that were worried about their relative humidity when they didn't have a lock on the front door or you know they there things were stored in a barn with a leaky roof and they were worried about the wrong things. So, we realized that you need more holistic approach. So, that went from the museum environment to preventive conservation which ICCROM in Rome, already with Gael de Guichen had coined that term, but then that really turned into the whole risk assessment approach much well holistic and much more useful approach to look at it so that's been a huge transformation over the years from something you kind of had to think about on the side to something that the whole profession has really embraced. It came pretty well full blown out of out of Stefan's mind and I can remember looking at him going this was what we were going to talk to the conference this was not what his paper was about at the conference this was just something he thought “Well, let's put this out there and see what people think about it” and so I mean that was that was sketched out and it took a few years to actually get the poster out and get people happy about it. It took a few more years a few years ago to do a second version of that, but you see those all around the world now. I mean, it really is something that's been embraced worldwide in the conservation profession.
KJ: So, you mentioned something that I would really like us to talk about-- is you have changed hats quite regularly throughout your years here at CCI. So you were manager for a while and then preservation services. Then you became director of RCSS you went over to CHIN for a while and then heritage information and whatnot so I would like to know what how is that contributed to your career and what take ways maybe would you would you have from that.
CC: Well again fortunate just to have these opportunities that come up and after that kind of transformation exercise and so on when I became director of our RCSS has I felt pretty comfortable in that because we gone through the transformation things were sort of settling as settling down. Of course, then we got hit with the renovation and so just between directors general again for an unfunded operation where the budget just kept going up and up and up. So therefore, I wasn't very popular in the department those days and felt mighty vulnerable. But, generally I've had the opportunity to work with different directors general through the years and every one of them seems to have we've been lucky to have the right person there at the right time, it seems to me. And so kind of taking advantage of those opportunities. I mean Chuck Gruchy, when he came here, really got involved in ICCROM and brought CCI much more internationally into that sort of field which then gave me the opportunity to sit on ICCROM Council and be president of that for a number of years and that is going on that's led to a very rich partnership we've had with each ICCROM and that that continues to this a and then Bill Peters who was here when we when we were going through those cuts and Bill had the courage to let the staff have a go at it and recreate the place and I'm sure that wasn't pretty to watch, but that really-- that was important and we were supported through that and so that was a great learning experience for everyone and then Jeanne came in just at the time that we were finishing the renovations I'm not sure what poor Jeanne thought when she got here because I mean the place was in a shambles. There were still-- most of it was you know wires hanging down we weren't moved into the labs or anything. So, but she really brought more credibility I think to the organization now that we were kind of a results-based organization she could tell that story to the department and I think the department began to see us is not just a strange little outfit there but we could demonstrate we were doing good work. We were being appreciated. We were making real contributions and making changes and so that brought a period of stability and then Patricia coming in and with a strategic plan and putting that together which was brought another level of focus so when Patricia had been here for a couple of years. and then finally I was coming to the end of my career and so when Kenza went on maternity leave it was just a wonderful opportunity to come back and for a year work with the managers that I'd worked with for years and that I always enjoyed working with and have that for the end of my career. So it was just a fortunate series of events as far as I'm concerned and just gave me a great opportunity at the end to try something different and then to come back and finish it doing what I'd always loved so.
KJ: It sounds quite nice to hear how you speak about your career. It's nice to hear it was like Season. Season as well when she was here. Like listening to both of you talk you can I sense your fondness for the career that you both wet and and I find we both actually find that you know you you know you everybody would want that you know so it's always it's always so nice to hear people another element though that I think you were heavily involved in according to Season was PIMs.
CC: Yeah well there's been so CCI from the beginning needed registration function for managing objects when it came in and so in the very early days Ian Wainwright and Ray Lafontaine on one of the first computers that came in put together this this little system called Icarus, which you know probably ran in a little 64 you know it was something with no memory or anything but it was a way of tracking objects that came in an out and then a number of years later it was realized we needed something actually we had someone over from CHIN who helped us in kind of the creation of that initially that was when I first arrived here and I just held coming over from CHIN, Jim Fox and he helped put that together. And then a number of years later it was okay you know computers had evolved it had more power we could do something differently and so again Ian was involved in in the development of Proteus and very much with the registration function, so Vee and Ian and the computer fellow we had at the time John Bisson so essentially built this Proteus system and on on Lotus Notes and and so that was successful for a number of years but it was mostly used just for registration for tracking objects and then analytical put their results in there but no one else really used it. So when there was the opportunity to build a bigger system and there was a false start with that where we spent the several years with with people from CIOB downtown for a project that after two years and considerable expenditure, they just closed down and said it wasn't going to work. So, then we got in a couple of very good consultants and essentially built PIMS with one business analyst and one coder with almost weekly meetings. So there was me and and Vee and Marie-Claude and Bruce Cordon and maybe one other person, so a fairly small group but we would meet every week for a couple of hours and they would kind of have mocked up something and how does this work and they'd say you know when we and then they'd come back to next week with something else developed and it moved ahead. So it was built on this agile development very much iterative very much involved and it's far from perfect but it is a system that now allows us to track most of the activities we do we do in the building and right now we're just starting discussions about the next iteration of what PIMS is going to become, which I think we'll probably be windows-based and it will hide a lot of the complexity you see in PIMS. But really as a director with PIMS I could for the first time actually be able to find the status of different projects and and you can see what people are spending their time on. You know, when someone asks accountability questions you can go and you can you can find information from there. Before, if someone asks what's the status of this or you know we have someone going to Manitoba. What have we done lately in Manitoba? You'd be running around the building asking people and it would all be it would all just be word of mouth this has allowed us to pull that together and for as accountability to become more important and so with Edith [Gendron] and that kind of reporting the department but also for our own feedback to understand what we're doing what we're spending time on what we actually have go on the go at the current time. It's incredibly useful to be able to give that from a management point of view to be able to give that oversight but one of the things that I always push for with PIMS that is not being entirely successful, is it also has to provide some usefulness for the people that are actually inputting the data. It can't all just be overhead for them so that management gets things. So, I hope to some extent it's been a way of helping people organize their work-- actually see what you got on your plate you know you can see what projects what business activities you're responsible for but also what tasks you've been assigned. So, the people that use it and take advantage of that I think it really helps organize where you are and what your priorities and where you’re just overloaded and you have to make some choices then you can take that to your manager and you can have that discussion because that kind of centralized system is... it always requires effort to feed the system, but it's certainly been valuable for management and certainly for a lot of staff that have used it. I think there has been some value for them as well. So we have to find a way to minimize the input amount but maximize the benefits for people to be able to see that in their daily work as well.
KJ: I think it is a useful tool.
CC: I think it and it has to continue to evolve if it's gonna be useful because if it's stagnant for a number of years then you know then you have to start all over from the zero.
KJ: So, you talked about the ten agents of deterioration. Are there any other projects that you worked on or that occurred during your years here at CCRI that stand out?
CC: Yeah, well I mean there are so many... yeah so many projects and again from a managerial and direct role point of view these aren't things that you've actually done. You may you know when times take some credit for them. But as things that your staff is done and I must say one of the real treats as director of RCSS-- I can't-- I mean every time you go into a lab and you see what people are working on and it can be artifacts or projects and you see the the kind of things that they're doing, I continue to be blown away now it's not cool to show that when you're in director and so I mean you don't but you know quite frankly on a daily basis when you walk in and see what people are doing, I'm gobsmacked by what they can achieve and that can be you know before and after for an artifact but it can also be you know the work other things like the work that Kate [Helwig] and Jenny [Poulin] did on amber and you kind of go, “How did you ever figure this out?” You know it's just incredible the you know the intelligence and the focus that that the staff have on the work that they're doing. So of course as managers you always want people to do things faster and be more efficient and all that kind of thing but I think that's one unique thing about CCI is because we don't have a collection because we don't have an exhibition schedule, we do have the time to think and to do that development and that value added which benefits not only our clients but the entire profession. So there's just mean so many of those over the years I mean huge projects are always impressive but even the small ones that have a special meaning for a small museum going back to a town are so worthwhile. And you hear, then you see it in the local newspapers and so on and that's, I mean, that's extremely, extremely fulfilling and I think that's another part of the work here too that a lot of people work for the government for their life, you know for their careers, but we're lucky in terms of working directly with clients and being able to see that and the nature of the work also... I mean preserving Canada's heritage--there's something very visceral that you feel like that's a good thing to do. We've seen I mean there's so many examples around the world of populations who have been disconnected from their past and that are kind of lost. So it's hard to articulate what that connection is but having that connection to the past is so important in terms of grounding people and being able to move forward and having a role to play in that it's really something that I think we all feel that we're fortunate to be able to work in an area with that kind of contact with the recipients and with that kind of work that may have benefits for centuries to come.
KJ: Absolutely and being so close to the clients also it's motivating because you get to see the impact.
NNM: You may have had the opportunity to leave or do something different a little bit earlier than when you left to go to CHIN, so why did you stay?
CC: Oh yeah well at one time I did look at an international opportunity I'm not sure if it would have Congress come to anything but but just in terms of exploring and that would be an interesting direction but quite honestly I think the season that talked about the CCI family and I think because we have our own facility here and and it's a group where we can do silly things together you know we can have Christmas celebrations we can have we can have donuts to celebrate the new the new the new publication on the web and and it creates this it creates an atmosphere where everyone feels that they're that they're part of something. It's not like being in a big department where you're bumping into hundreds of different people all the time. So, I guess a couple of things the field from day one when I found out about it and I thought I wonder that just sounds fascinating I wonder if I'd ever be lucky enough to work that field and I've never lost that I just think I'm so lucky to have found this niche because the art the science the creativity and then CCI in a place that sort of has the luxury to be able to develop and work on that. It's pretty hard to look at something else and go “Yeah, that would be that'd be more fun than what I'm having right now.” So, I aside from that one temptation kind of at the beginning more or less in the beginning my career, once certainly once I'd spend some time here at CCI I've never had any intention to go anywhere else.
KJ: What would you say makes CCI unique?
CC: Well, in in terms of it's a centralized a centralized group that has a lot of resources that can bring to any particular problem so a combination of conservators and scientists and now, with CHIN, we have data people too. And that you don't see that very much elsewhere in the world. In the United States, I mean, they have labs the Getty kind of serves the world but otherwise you have labs that met and you have labs at Carnegie mellon but they're they're separate and they're mainly looking at their own collection and in the UK actually they did this study about five or six years ago and realized that again they had conservation and conservation science in all kinds of different institutions but there was no connection with they were all working in silos and they were all in different universities or museums and this I think was the House of Lords that came out with this report that kind of said we have to start working horizontally together. So, the fact that just through circumstances and back in the National Museums day, CCI was created and it kind of did make sense and it made sense to, you know, not for everyone to buy fancy equipment and the expensive equipment you need to be able to get some of the answers. but to to put that together and so having critical mass in one place definitely gives you gives you synergies.
KJ: What would you say is how do you foresee the future of CCI what are you foresee happening?
CC: Well, I would bet if I came back in five years I wouldn't recognize CCI and that's a good thing well absolutely I mean we have new we have new directors here with new director general we're moving you know it appears so this is moving ahead where we're going to be co-located with Parks and and so certainly in terms of the people, the directions, things will be different and we've had a period of stability I think partially because we'd had conservators, well employees who've been here for a long time manners is being here for a long time that's now beginning to turn over. That's turned over a great deal and will continue over the next few years and so it'll be a new team in here in five years and they'll have their own ideas and they’re bright amazing people and I'm sure that as long as we continue to be supported by the department, it'll continue to be, an amazing place to work. It'll be different but change is good and we need to embrace it and we need to make it work for us and I have no doubt that's going to happen.
KJ: I like that. Any words of advice?
CC: I wouldn't dare. I mean I see the new people that are coming in here and we're hiring all the time and they're just I mean there's super smart and the same with the interns we have I mean wouldn't you just like to keep them all? Because I mean you see these amazing people come through their bright they've got all kinds of different backgrounds, bringing different ideas and you know and this is you know this is a new generation and there's going to be new challenges new you need new people to be able to meet those challenges and so I mean I think I did a decent job for the time I was here but in terms of going ahead, absolutely I think got a foundation but it's going to be built on and it's going to change and it'll be different and you have to adapt otherwise you're going to die.
[Music: “Where Was I?” by Lee Rosevere from the album “Music for Podcasts 6.” Style: Electronic Minimalism]
NNM: On March 7th, 2019, CCI hosted a retirement for party for Charlie Costain. In a crowded party room, several people made speeches to wish Charlie farewell, including nearly all the former directors general. But the final words were from Charlie himself…
CC: Looking back, I just feel so fortunate that I've had the opportunity to just spend my career in this area to work for three world-class organizations—the first eight years at Parks, very much my formative years learned a lot working with John Stewart. Louis Laflèche is still there so he can outlast me and then of course coming to CCI and spending most of my career here and then having that unexpected but really welcome and exciting opportunity to work with CHIN at the end. So, we're very fortunate I think in terms of in the federal government, we actually work with clients and we get to develop these relationships with clients across the country and around the world. That's something that is special about CCI and CHIN and we take that for granted I think but there's a lot of people who work in the federal government their entire lives and never actually deal with a client. So, that makes it special, but I also think the type of work that we do we feel it's meaningful. Stefan [Michalski] talked about that in his IIC lecture about how a lot of people feel that their jobs really don't contribute to society but I think we feel that we are making a difference and we're contributing to Canadians and to the world. But, of course what makes it special is the people that work here and I just feel so fortunate to work with such a group. Anything I've ever achieved in my career has always been with the support of others. It's interesting, 45 years ago when I was a chemistry student at Queens and wondering what I was going to do, I’d heard of CCI and I wondered, “You know I wonder if I ever been lucky enough to get a job there.” So, thank you to all of you for help a dream come true. It's been terrific. [Applause]
[Music: “Here’s Where Things Get Interesting” by Lee Rosevere from the album “Music for Podcasts 6.” Style: Electronic Minimalism]
NNM: Thank you to Charlie Costain and to my co-host Kelly Johnson.
CCI and CHIN: In Our Words is a production of the Canadian Conservation Institute, Department of Canadian Heritage.
Our music is by Lee Rosevere.
Production assistance provided by Pop-Up Podcasting.
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Next time on the podcast…
Season Tse: “I'd say, always remember it's a privilege to work at CCI and don't take it for granted and CCI is a wonderful place and I think everyone who's been here says CCI is a wonderful place and the synergy is wonderful I think, take advantage of the synergy and learn from each other yeah it's a wonderful place.”