Podcast – CCI and CHIN: In Our Words

For nearly 50 years, museum and heritage professionals worldwide have looked to the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) and the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN) for their expertise. Now, CCI and CHIN are looking to share and preserve their own histories through interviews with current and former staff members as well as key figures within the fields of conservation and collections management. If you are starting a career in cultural heritage or are simply curious to learn about what goes on behind the scenes at CCI and CHIN, this is the podcast for you.

Most recent episode

Ela Keyserlingk: textile conservator

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Transcript of episode “Ela Keyserlingk: textile conservator”

Transcript of episode “Ela Keyserlingk: textile conservator”

Duration: 00:54:08

[Music: “We Don’t Know How it Ends” by Lee Rosevere from the album “Music for Podcasts 6.” Style:

Electronic Minimalism]

Ela Keyserlingk (EK): I remember, I was sent with Jane Holland. We were sent to a museum in Mirachimi.

Both of us were textile conservators and we were sent there and this was the museum for chainsaws!

NNM: I’m Nathalie Nadeau Mijal and this is CCI and CHIN: In Our Words.

Ela Keyserlingk is a retired textile conservator who worked at the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) from 1976 to 1997. Originally from Germany, it was love that brought Ela to Canada. But it was curiosity and determination that led her to an internship opportunity at CCI, which blossomed into a fascinating career. In this interview, you’ll hear Ela tell us what it was like to work on some of Canada’s most important textile objects. I asked JP Davidson, who’s been working on the podcast behind the scenes, to help me out for this interview. We began by asking what Ela knew about conservation before getting into the field.

[Music fades.]

EK: I actually didn't know anything about it. When I was at university I sometimes joined my father on his research trip to the Monte Gargano area which is at the Adriatic Sea and he was researching there a settlement or actually a pilgrimage place which had been used by the Greeks and the Romans and the Christians and I got in trouble with my father because we found in an old goat shed, I found a Roman head covered in manure and I got all excited so we asked the farmer, “What is this is all about?” and he said, “Oh! You like it? You can have it!” and I said, “Oh! Yes, wonderful!” and my father immediately said I had not a fat chance to ever get it and that it was really… this was cultural good and unregistered cultural good cannot be taken out of the country and he would lose all his permits of being there and doing research in this area. So I had to leave this beautiful young Roman behind while I actually—and that was the first time I kind of realized that this was an important thing, cultural good even if it was in a goat shed. So that was my first realization that there's more value than just being pretty.

JP Davidson: And when you say Roman head… statue head?

EK: It was a bust! It was a bust, yeah. Oh, it wasn't a real one, no I would not have listened to my father if it would have been a real one but anyways, no.

NNM: And how old were you at that time?

EK: I was in… I must have been about 20.

NNM: The importance of those of that of that cultural artifact was impressed upon you?

EK: It was very impressive. I mean we had the Greek and Roman history at school, but to see it and you know, put your finger on was really quite impressive and nearly own it was even better, but anyways.

NNM: So that awakened an interest in you for cultural heritage?

EK: Yes!

NNM: And then what brought you to CCI?

EK: Ah… what brought me to CCI [is] that I met a Canadian in Glastonbury. I was working after I had finished my studies, I was working for the chalice well trust in Glastonbury. Anyways but we got married in Europe and because then he was studying at the London School of Economics and he got a job offer from Ottawa University and so he went home and I came with him and started a new life in Ottawa and then we started our life together and we didn't have much and I looked around for used furniture and I met lots of Victorian bits and pieces everywhere but then I discovered sometimes in the back at this time there were pine, much older furniture and they were just quite beautiful. I liked them more. They attracted me more than the Victorian period. So I collected them and but then I noticed that I had no idea what to do with them. Was all very well I mean I could have stripped them but my instinct told me that this might not be the right way and somebody told me that there was a conservation program at Algonquin College and so I enrolled in the program because… but I had children. So I took evening courses there. So I think it took me about five years to get anywhere but and finally when my children were all in school, I was able to take advantage of their internship programs.

JP: So you were collecting antique furniture.

EK: Yes.

JPD: And that took you to a conservation program at Algonquin. Most people would go to the hardware store and say, “How do I clean this?” Like what… what is it about you that made you invest yourself so heavily?

EK: I think what perhaps a difference with me and other people is instead of going buying a stripper to deal with this furniture, I think having worked with my father or visited my father and then there was much more respect, I think, of aged things and I learned that if you—pine furniture, the Pioneers or whatever. That's what they had in the beginning! I was really interested to learn how to do it the proper way.

JP: And did you… Were you thinking it would be a career?

EK: No, no. It hadn't occurred to me. I just did it because I wanted to know and then slowly discovered that I really liked it.

NNM: And you felt that textiles were going to be where you were going to continue working?

EK: It's the area I knew the most about so it was a natural area to follow up.

JP: Sorry, how did you know about textiles?

EK: Well I had done I had done some studies during my teachers’ time. I had taken some—my teachers training. I had taken some courses in art history and then my father always trotted us to museums. So this was not a new experience but I had never seen the museum from the behind the scene. So that was really… it was just wonderful.

NNM: Do you remember seeing it for the first time?

EK: Well, the textile collection, I slowly saw because, you see, that was a time when National Museums started to discuss to building a new building and new exhibits and there was a great push on looking how immigrants arrived and so we looked at what they brought over on clothing and I remember—and my family teased me no end because I came home always talking excitedly of having washed underwear [laughter]—all the beautiful underwear and their construction. Somebody actually in the history of the division wrote an article about it but I was known, “Oh, yes. Ela has a job. Now she washes underwear she didn't have enough of them at home.” [Laughter]

JPD: And you washed those underwear much more slowly?

EK: Much more slowly and it was much more complicated and so on and it was there that they talked about CCI in the textile lab. So that isn't… so I decided my next internship I should try to get it at CCI and I did.

NNM: And that was in the… 1978-1979?

EK: Yes, it was I think it must have been ‘76 or something like that that I had my first internship here.

NNM: Do you remember your first day?

EK: Yes, it was memorable because I went to the textile lab and there was Eva Burnham who was Swiss and anyways—my first day and Sharon was there and Sharon was beautiful and terribly well-dressed always and I walk walked in. It was the first time—I had met Eva before but it was the first time I met Sharon and she gave me the once-over from top to bottom and I had a homemade top and a homemade skirt on and she later told me that my tailoring abilities would just be passing but my choice of fabric was completely out of the court because a textile lab only dealt with natural fibers and that wasn't only in regards of textiles but it was in regards of your own clothing.

JPD: And you were you were dressed in polyester?

EK: And I was dressed in polyester. I thought very nice polyester but I learned better.

JPD: Is the position of women in the organization something that you've seen change over your time here?

EK: Well I think the culture changed and we felt more empowered to say, “Sorry, we show you how to sew on a button or a badge but this is how far the cooperation goes.”

JPD: Right. Hmm, yeah.

EK: That was a bit of a problem because when you belong to the textile lab the men were inclined to think that we were the “needle women,” you know, and if there's a button missing on their shirt, they could come down to us and you know and it took a while to explain that this wasn't really in our job. I mean we never said so much, but we might have kept the shirt a bit too long or whatever but that was… We were always very conscious that we had, as Sharon Little said, we had to look “business-like but alluring” so said these things would not happen to us.

JPD: “Business-like but alluring” in conservation! The conservation lab is not a place for our fashion show!

EK: No, but it certainly was in the textile lab.

JPD: Wow!

EK: You know we were, certainly, nobody ever showed up in jeans or shorts or anything like that. That was kind of… and we needed that because it's very hard to ask somebody well-dressed would they please sew on a button.

NNM: Yeah, a lot of things have changed from the story that you just told but, I mean, that's why we want to hear these stories and see what things used to be like, so.

EK: Yeah.

JPD: We've heard from other people that those early days… the organization was, I don't know, like a rambunctious teenager or something. It was not you know maybe more pinned down as it is today. What can you tell us about that?

EK: I mean, it was just wonderful, I mean there was always something going on and the parties were unbelievable. I had never seen anything like that they were so creative and there was always a competition somehow. You know, the creativity and people… I mean it's, it just was wonderful and it was very sharp too. There was an edge to it. You know which kept everybody really laughing and enjoying it and some people might have ended up slightly hurt but it certainly was worth every second of it and we had competition for Christmas: the best Christmas decoration and oh! It was just it was really astoundingly enjoyable, and the working together and the friendships and the affairs… [Laughter] I won’t tell about the affairs, but there were lots of people who married each other in the Institute so it wasn't… You know so there was a certain enjoyment of being together.

JPD: And it sounds like a tech startup nowadays, just everybody working long hours and coming together.

EK: And you know the astounding thing… Especially I can't tell so much from the scientists, but the creativity and the ability of the conservators was absolutely stunning! I mean, the real admiration for beautiful handwork, which it is in the end. You know with knowledge obviously. It was… I mean mind-blowing. There wasn't anything that you would have said, “Oh. Oh, I think they could have done that a little bit better.” Everything was 100% perfect and I must say I was just astounded how a group of people could have very good parties but also produce the most beautiful work.

NNM: A lot of talented people.

EK: Really talented people and you know with talent comes also a little bit of individuality sometimes, but I mean I never cared about that. You know because the end result was absolutely beautiful.

JPD: I'm curious about the shift of CCI from those crazy teenage years to more of an institution that it is today. What can you tell us about that shift?

EK: We made a bigger wave inside of Canada. I mean we had the mobile lab! I mean that was… Sorry to go back to that, but that was a wonderful… I mean even the first start of it. Nathan Stolow had the idea to found CCI. Nobody else in the world had that idea and I think one should remember him well for that brain wave. It was excellent and the mobile lab was a wonderful thing. It was very good for us as conservators because it was a real reality check. I mean, we were sitting here a little bit in an ivory tower, you know, treating, but the best of the best or whatever but you know and we could dictate the speed. It's not like being in a museum where they need it for tomorrow for exhibit and you better do something, you know? Or you have to get in a big fight with the curator or whatever. You know but this that we had time and peace and encouragement to do it. These were big, big things and I'm sorry it's not quite like… I mean I'm just sentimental so you mustn't take it too personal but we had an impact on the country and every little museum knew about museums. We wrote endless reports and every little museum in Canada knew about what museology is about and what conservation needs are and we helped and we gave them advice and I did with Tom Stone together and others. I was the first one and then I always was sent up to the Yukon again and I absolutely fell in love with the Yukon! You know it was wonderful trips I ever took! All of this, all the museums in the country knew about us. They might not have liked the federal government and we always had to say you know, “The check is in the mail and we know that and but we are proving that this is not the case. That we really mean it and we are here to help you and work it out.”

NNM: I'm glad you mentioned the mobile labs because we almost didn't talk about that! But, do you remember any trip in particular you mentioned going to the Yukon?

EK: I remember I was sent with Jane Holland who then went over to the Ontario museums organization [Ontario Museums Association] and we were sent to a museum in Miramichi. Both of us were textile conservators and we were sent there and this was the museum for chainsaws. [Laughter] They were very sweet because they looked us both up and down and said, “Oh, these two babes don't know a thing about the chainsaw.” And they were absolutely right, but you know even that they didn't take, you know, I said look we take all your environmental measurements. You can live with that and we get, we find out from our scientists what the best RH [relative humidity] should be for chainsaws and should there be oiled or not. I said otherwise we could sit and sew for you cotton covers what a chainsaw but we are not quite sure if that's of much help. So they even took us out for dinner afterwards and they got a report and next time I think somebody was sent there.

JPD: That knew more about chainsaws…?

EK: Knew more about chainsaws than us two. So these things did happen sometimes.

NNM: So do you want to maybe tell us about one of the projects that you worked on that was very important for you?

EK: First of all I have to—as a base I have to tell you—and that reflected on our treatments, that when I

entered the field there was a division in the textile field in Europe. A very clear division and there was Sheila Landi at the Victoria [and] Albert Museum who had decided to glue textiles and they had old textiles and then there was Mrs. Flury [Mechthild Flury-Lemberg] who would absolutely despise glue and she would—and when these two people met, or their disciples met at conferences they would not talk to each other. It was a serious break and when I came here, we followed Mrs. Flury's approach, which was sewing with silk thread and putting things on new backings and washing textiles. Anyways, all of this—it always turned out beautifully but then the problem started that the Europeans started collecting textiles from the 1850s on and these were the textiles who had serious problems because the Industrial Revolution had discovered new chemical methods. They used dyes which were not stable. All dyes before that are usually stable and these dyes were completely unstable and then they also discovered that if you treated silks chemically, you could increase their weight and that became terribly important because the weight made—the textiles were sold not by yards but by weight and so the textile industry made lots of money by treating them chemically and so were… Then came all the costumes because they were heavy. The silks made a wonderful noise when you walked and then when they were chemically treated and so they appeared in Canadian collections and they became a real serious problem and that was that you couldn't sew them. You couldn't do anything with them because if you sewed them or by nature already by aging they didn't… the fibers didn't break, they turned into dust. So you couldn't pierce them with a needle and the Canadian collections were full of these textiles. The Europeans started to collect them, but they had such a backlog with their old textiles as they didn't consider them serious. So that is when Jane Down, at the same time, Jane Down started her adhesive research and so we got together and Jane Down was easy to work with. So—at least she was really interested to see what conservation did downstairs and how she could help. So she started her adhesive project and when I asked her—or the textile lab asked her, I don't know who asked first, but anyways, we asked her to include textile—known textile adhesives into her research program and that is really what saved our treatments.

JPD: Was that a difficult shift because you were disciples of the ‘no adhesive’ world?

EK: Yeah! But the first one so we're faced that you couldn't sew them! All right? There was no way when they were well disintegrated if we wouldn't have done an adhesive treatment if the text I was still in good and the Europeans hadn't experienced that.

JPD: So this was an opportunity for CCI to innovate in conservation?

EK: Yes, yes and so we started this and then it was wonderful because the scientists connected with lots of museums especially you know also the European and then the Americans. So I could… I start… Nobody wanted to treat flags and that became a little bit my specialty and every museum has flags and if there is a male museum's director, he will ask for conservation of the flag before he will ask for costume. You know and there were trade banners and firefighter banners galore and they were all made out of weighted silk.

JPD: So how did the… how did CCI come together around this problem?

EK: Well they Jane just took this on. You know and I think… and we were very keen on it and CCI even sent me to Switzerland where they had done a different treatment than Sheila Landi had and they had treated a number of flags. So I stayed there for a few weeks and looked at all their secrets and got them all for CCI. I mean they didn't mind at all. They knew I was doing it and then we tested their adhesives and so and then slowly as it developed—because it's not only the adhesive you have to be able to handle the adhesive. The adhesive mustn’t… must support the textile but must not be drawn into the textile. You know because otherwise you have a plastic artefact.

NNM: Right, yeah.

EK: So we worked on that together and then we were asked to give papers and then I gave papers and Jane Down gave papers and then and slowly we actually got the Europeans to see that there was an answer to textiles they had ignored and then there became rid… and so this fight between the two groups… and so we spread peace a little bit between the… I mean everybody still thought their way is the best way but you know there was some understanding but it was always tinged with jealousy, because we had the only Institute where scientists and conservators worked together and all the workshops we gave at CCI, you know, the scientists were involved and they were there and we talked about the handling properties and… but the jealousy of CCI of being the only place in the whole world where both of conservators and scientists work daily together. I mean a lot of them had connections to university, but this daily working together and kind of battling out sometimes. You know, “yes chemically it's the best adhesive but I can't work with it! You know, I can't apply it. It doesn't work properly.” It stiffens the artefact or whatever it was which changed from laboratory to laboratory but that was… So, I think we added greatly to—with a good shot of jealousy but we added greatly to CCI's reputation during that time.

NNM: That’s really interesting that a point of tension between conservators and scientists is actually seen throughout the world as a strength.

EK: Absolute strength.

NNM: Yeah.

EK: You know and that the tensions came more from administrative problems, you know, then from knowledge problems in each other's fields and it got much better, you know.

NNM: So, we were going to talk about perhaps one of the objects in particular that stands out to you.

EK: Well, I think the first one was kind of fun because it was Lucy Maud Montgomery’s wedding dress and that was very, you know it was just historic and everything and I liked when we had finished it that Air Canada gave us a seat for the dress, to fly it home with Eva Burnham together [laughter] and I think even in their magazine there was the treatment of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s dress by CCI and how Air Canada had flown it back to its own province so that was fun. The other one was the Carillon Banner and the Carillon Banner… The trouble with the Carillon Banner was that it's not… it never was a beautiful object but its significance made absolutely up for its lack of beauty. It was…

JPD: What is this thing?

EK: It’s from the middle of 1735 I think. It was during the battle of the Plains of Abraham and it was carried into battle, which I doubt a little bit because it was absolutely huge. You know, it was over 2 meters high. I mean it was a big thing and in the middle, it had the picture of the Madonna and in each corner it had the fleur de lis and they were the symbol and stayed the symbol for Quebec and it came from this flag. It was the first time these symbols had been used and apparently it was carried into battle and Mary's mantle caught a big cannon and actually most of Mary's mantle and her figure was missing because a cannonball went right through it. Well, that's what the story was, but you know, to get something straight through the middle of the textile, it has to be held taught on all four corners otherwise the textile would be you know injured but a clear hole…? Anyways, but it's a wonderful story, it doesn't matter, you know, the myth is more important than reality and this flag was carried I think close to 100 years in Saint Jean-Baptiste parades and when it started falling apart, the good nuns said, “Oh! We fix it.” And they glued it with potato starch to a new silk backing and then it was carried again and then it looked very tattered again because even the silk backing gave in and they lost more and more bits and pieces. So they rolled the flag up and still carried it in parades and it just stayed rolled up and then there were some curators at the Museum of Civilization in Quebec City and they decided this had to be unrolled. I don't know if they were disappointed, but they applied to CCI and so we went through the very painful way of slowly unfolding the banner and then we had to remove the backing which the nuns had added because that was completely torn too and so it, I think it took me… It took us actually, it took us a few months to draw… to use overlays and draw exactly where each fragment is because we knew when we would remove the back it would be very hard to, you know, to keep the fragment exactly where there were. So we did that and then the fragment, we had to remove the starch from them. So all the fragments turned—the only comparison I have—into little tomato peels. You know when you peel a tomato after you dip in hot water? It all curls up. So it was a painful, slow process and then we had the real problem that the flag was of such historic importance that we had to find the treatment which was completely, utterly, reversible. So in 50 years or 100 years from now somebody who knows better than we did could treat the flag without any problem.

JPD: Which is essentially helping the future conservators undo your “potato starch.”

EK: Yeah, our tomato peels, you know! [Laughter] Anyways, so even to then we had to flatten its fragment and try to remove and Season Tse and Helen Burgess were very helpful and finding a way how to do it but… and because of the reversibility you know which is one of the creeds in conservation that it has to be reversible and we felt in that—these circumstances it had to be truly, utterly reversible. Anybody could reverse it later on so we devised a treatment where we sandwiched the flag between two layers of fabric: the bottom layer which was silk, which was dyed and the color of the original of the flag and then we covered it with “Stabletex” and then, well first the silk backing, then with the drawing—the position drawing we had we've returned all the fragments, you know, they were all numbered and they were all in little groups.

NNM: How many pieces were there?

EK: You know, I kept myself from counting because I would have probably quit my job at that point! [Laughter] It was just… no I mean there were teeny little perhaps the biggest was perhaps a centimeter and a half.

JPD: How long was the project?

EK: Even that I have erased from my mind, how many hours it took.

JPD: But this is months, years?

EK: Oh, months! I think it was well over, I mean other things happen too, but I think it was well over a year the textile lab and it was huge it took so many tables. So, finally and so what we did, we sandwiched it between a new backing, the fragments, then the silk crepoline and “Stabletex” which also had to be dyed, you know, so it wouldn't look different and then we sewed around each fragment. So we created a pocket between each of the… around each of the fragments. So they would stay there and not lose their position but…

NNM: And there was no glue!

EK: And there was no glue and you just—and it was done with silk matching thread so you could see it looks a bit quilted if you look sideways at it but you could unstitch everything and you would have all the fragments back.

NNM: How did you feel when it was finished?

EK: It was a glorious day. It had a sleeve on top and I remember we were in the area where the artifacts came in and left. It had a mezzanine up there because it was so high. So we all were lying on this mezzanine to sew on the top sleeve and it was hot and I think we finally took our sweaters off and then the t-shirts came off. [Laughter] The door was locked… because it was so hot! You know and you had to… you know you had to hang over it, it was, anyways, it was one of these things it was done and then went back and then a funny thing was one of our interns we had who was from Germany. She is now the head of the conservation lab of the biggest textile collection in Germany at the Bavarian National Museum. She came over… 2014, I think, about seven years after I retired and she came over and said, “Oh! Come on, Ela we go to Quebec City and we have a look at this monstrosity again and admire and see what happens.” I mean, seven years is already quite a time and it never was on display either. You know, so we decided first time we should go and look at it and Charlie Costain arranged and we went and we saw it and two conservators with critical eyes is not a good thing, but we both agreed: it was holding up very well and considering the prerequisites and all that, that the treatment was certainly a success.

NNM: Did they ever bring it out for another parade?

EK: No. Oh, they couldn’t, I mean.

JPD: Was it emotional seeing it again after so long?

EK: Yes, yes, it kind of was, you know, closure? So that I wouldn't dream about it anymore and I mean it was very good, because it really tested our patience and it proved that you can do a completely reversible treatment. I mean considering the importance of the banner, that's actually what it deserved and nothing less. So it was a successful, highly successful treatment from that point of view.

NNM: It's a great story.

JPD: Yeah, it is. I love that.

EK: The other artefact which I would like to see, but just for sentimental reason and that was the Gondar Hanging in the… from the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) because that was a world famous artifact which came from Ethiopia. It was war booty which is actually not quite allowed but they were taken by the British Army at the time and they... and one of them emigrated to Canada and gave it then… I don't know when this all happened but quite a while ago and anyway so the Royal Ontario Museum applied for conservation treatment and that was quite a responsibility because it was utterly beautiful, this hanging and it was very big too, again and everybody… Every textile historian knows in the whole world about this hanging because as tablet weaving is a very special weaving style and they had woven this… Nobody ever… it usually is used for ceintures fléchées? They used this method or similar method but not in this huge fashion. So we got a curator from Metropolitan Museum and the ROM specialists were there and I think even Helen Burgess and Season [Tse] were there and we talked about the treatment, well, actually, we let them tell us what to do and then we decided what could be done and what could not be done and anyways we decided it had to be washed because it was very, very dirty. It hung for many years, probably centuries in a church and so.

NNM: Can you describe what it looked like?

EK: It had… It was woven. It was also about—I can't remember, but it was also at least 2 meters again and it had beautiful color combinations going across it and then figures and symbols all over. So it had deep meaning and even the art historian from the Metropolitan was not quite sure what the symbolism was of the whole artifact. Anyways, Stephan Michalski… and that was very amusing because we had to make him build us a huge textile wash table and I think he used his motor for his heating in his house to motorize the washing table. So there were… he was very inventive and wonderful and he created this and it was fun working with him. He had a good sense of humor and we even got a technical draftsman in to record every step of Stefan's invention which he invented while building, you know and anyways.

JPD: And it was… the wash table was as big as the textile?

EK: The wash table was as big as the textile with spare space around it. We were looking at it this morning in the research and I think it was two meters by five meters or something like that, could have been yeah, sorry.

JPD: Very big.

NNM: 5.2 meters by 2.1 meters. [Laughter]

EK: It was just gigantic again and we happen to have contractors and interns at the same time and it was really—well we had to get special water, you know and Helen Burgess and they helped of how we'd… how to set all this up and each of these people had a job and that worked really well. So everybody did their research in their own area and then we all got together every few days and they said, “Well, I need this and I… this cannot be done and how do we rinse the textile? How do we get the water out fast enough without applying too much pressure on it?” All of this! How to connect the water to the wash table, and it was a huge job of preparation.

JPD: It sounds like that kind of teamwork is really something you look back fondly on.

EK: I loved it all right! It was really nice and it was nice because everybody felt responsible, you know for their area and everybody knew exactly what their contribution was and there was never a problem and somebody said, “Well, I'm sorry. It's a good idea but it doesn't quite work with what I have planned.” You know, because this will be there, be hoses in the way of whatever and it was really productive and then the great day came and as the special water bath was prepared and the Gondar was slowly lowered into it. I think even Chuck Gruchy came down to watch this. I mean the lab was suddenly full, which I was a little bit nervous. You know and also I didn't want to have… I mean we needed a lot of space and people standing around and “oohing” and “ahing” wasn’t very helpful to make sure everybody was concentrated on what they had to do, but it went off without a hitch. So and as soon as it got wet, the whole lab filled with the smell of incense. It was just… it was just beautiful!

JPD: Because it had been exposed to incense.

EK: It has been exposed in one of these its European churches which are actually cut into the rock down it's… they're not built above. They’re cut out from the top down, the whole structure and so there wasn't a cool wind breathing through the church from time to time because it is underground. It's not underground. It's, you know, there's an opening around it but it's all built from the top down and it must have hung there for ages. Anyways and then everybody… It became a real CCI project because everybody came to the Textile Lab and checked out how we were doing and how the Gondar was doing and it had to… we had to secure it to itself with stitches and areas because it was broken at some places and it all had to be done lying on a bridge and Janet and Renee were absolute angels. They kept going and doing it and they were just… I mean, they're wonderful conservators. It was just perfect.

NNM: It's really physically demanding because you have to lie down on your front and lean over, right?

EK: And on your stomach you know, how long—and your arms, you know, the circulation is cut off. So it was really and they're both so good I mean it was such a pleasure working with them. They were… oh and the interns too. It was really, it was a powerful… and Jan Vuori was there and she had to fill a hole there was one hole, anyways. It was all… it was a great thing. Janet Wagner and Renee Dancause. Yeah they still here and they are just… You know, they’re both very quiet but God are they perfect conservators and it's so lucky when you get that. They're much better than I ever was, both of them. They're just absolutely perfect.

NNM: Maybe we didn't… something we didn't talk about yet is: did you have any mentors at CCI?

EK: Yeah, I did have mentors. I mean, you know, indirect mentors all the time, because I learned non-stop here. I'm sorry with age I forget a bit because I have done other things after leaving CCI, but it was just… I mean you learn from each other and from the scientists and it was just wonderful and I think especially nice. I really liked Ray LaFontaine, who was a very patient and I think he had a really good feeling for conservation. I mean he could see that what happened in these labs was really astounding and good. Anyways, so and then Charlie was wonderful because when we reorganized CCI, I worked very closely with Charlie together and we got very well on with each other because Charlie is a very organized person and he writes beautiful terms of references. I can attest to that and I think I brought more the psychological needs of the conservators of the Institute, at that time to our planning and reorganizing and writing terms of reference or whatever it was or we had meetings together with everybody, we broke up in different groups and had to make decisions about certain areas and anyways. It worked very well. Charlie and I worked very nicely together, at least that was my feeling. So I profited greatly from Charlie, his organizational skills.

NNM: Is there anything else that you would like to talk about?

EK: I must say, I'm in general—and that was the last thing before I left here. Oh! Yeah, we had the textile conference. That was kind of fun.

NNM: This was just recently in October, the NATCC [North American Textile Conservation Conference] conference…

EK: Well, no because it started 20 years ago. I ended with a big bang, which I didn't know but I… through my professional life I had met a lot of the American conservators, textile conservators and we all bemoaned that we've always a hanger-on of a AIC (American Institute for Conservation) or IIC (International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works) and so on and we said we need our own group. So, we founded the textile conservation.

NNM: The North American…

EK: The North American Textile Conservation Group and we invited the… and we knew some Mexicans already who worked at the Metropolitan Museum so it became a real… So we had a steering committee and we decided… because at that time the CCI was… and the government, was actually quite generous. Money was a problem, but never a real problem. So they thought it was a great idea and so the first conference was done here in Ottawa and we had people coming all over from Russia and from the Philippines and I think Japan. Whatever, they were from everywhere and it was a really big conference. We held it at the National Gallery. Anyways, so it was a great success and lo and behold… and that was my last big hoorah and I retired afterwards. You know, so that was very nice and the whole thing continued and 20 years later this September they returned to Ottawa again and I got pushed and bullied and I gave the keynote speech to that group and it's so nice to see that these things survive and again Janet Wagner and Rene Dancause organized it down to the last iota and it was again a very successful conference.

NNM: That's wonderful.

EK: Yeah, something surviving for 20 years. That's pretty good.

[Music: “Here’s Where Things Get Interesting” by Lee Rosevere from the album “Music for Podcasts 6.”

Style: Electronic Minimalism]

NNM: Thank you to Ela Keyserlingk and my co-host JP Davidson. ‘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.

Ela Keyserlingk is a retired textile conservator who worked at CCI from 1976 to 1997. Originally from Germany, it was love that first brought Ela to Canada, but it was curiosity and determination that led her to an internship opportunity at CCI, which blossomed into an exciting career. In this episode, you will hear Ela tell us what it was like to work on some of Canada’s most important textile objects.

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Peter Homulos: founder of the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN)

Listen on Apple Podcasts - “Peter Homulos: Director, CHIN, 1972-1992”

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Transcript of episode “Peter Homulos: Director, CHIN, 1972-1992”

Transcript of episode “Peter Homulos: Director, CHIN, 1972-1992”

Episode length: 00:00:39:47

[Music: “We Don’t Know How it Ends” by Lee Rosevere from the album “Music for Podcasts 6.” Style: Electronic Minimalism]

Nathalie Nadeau Mijal (NNM): Imagine, for a moment, there is something you don’t understand—a word, for example, that you’re not familiar with. What do you do? You look it up on Google. But what if it’s the late 1960s, early 1970s and the word you don’t understand is the word “computer.”

Peter Homulos (PH): And I said, “What’s that?” And went home, looked it up in the encyclopedia and the word “computer” wasn’t in my encyclopedia.

NNM: I'm Nathalie Nadeau Mijal and this is CCI and CHIN: In Our Words.

Our guest today is Peter Homulos. In today’s interview, he will tell us how he went from geology student to director of the National Inventory Program, all before he even turned 30 years old. For context, the National Inventory Program was the precursor of the Canadian Heritage Information Network or CHIN. One of the original goals of the program was to keep a record of Canada’s cultural property to discourage theft, but the mandate quickly grew to creating a computerized inventory of collections, to facilitate the sharing of information, as well as conducting research and development on information management standards and technology. From a modern perspective, it’s difficult to convey how ground-breaking and even controversial this initiative was. So, let’s get back to Peter and find out how exactly he got started on his unique career path.

PH: I ended up at CHIN… I guess as the second person that was hired. The first person that was there was a person by the name of Michel de Tedesco and Michel was actually the Chief of Information Systems for the National Museums of Canada at the time and he was the one that hired me. And, then within two years Michel had moved on and unfortunately passed away when he was only 33. So he wasn't around with us for a long time and as the only other person there I got put into the hot seat, so to speak.

NNM: So when they brought you on, what was your position when you started?

PH: I was brought on as a computer programmer. I'd actually been studying. In first year, I was studying geology and landed a job, among other things, cataloguing the national mineral collection that was the Department of Natural or Energy, Mines and Resources. And then in my second year at Ottawa U [University of Ottawa] they announced their opening at school of computer science and I said, “What's that?” And went home looked it up in the encyclopedia and the word computer wasn't in my encyclopedia so I said well if it's that new… maybe I should take it, so I switched over, but continued during the summers working at Energy, Mines and Resources and doing the cataloguing and then when the National Museums announced that they were going to do a computerized inventory of collections, that just sort of brought together two interests: my interest in cataloguing collections and the computer science part and so I actually dropped out of university to take the job when it was offered to me.

KJ: Wow.

NNM: That’s amazing.

KJ: That's really avant-gardiste to go—to have that kind of… I love how you use, you know, you looked it up in an encyclopedia and obviously…

NNM: And it wasn’t even in there!

PH: That just shows you how old I am!

KJ: So okay, so you were working in… for CHIN? It wasn't even CHIN then at the time?

PH: Well, it was actually—the original program was called the National Inventory Program.

KJ: Okay.

PH: So coming out of the National Museums policy of 1970, there were a number of programs, CCI [Canadian Conservation Institute] being one, the International Exhibit Program, Museum Assistance Program and the National Inventory program. And it wasn't long after we actually started doing the work that we realized that in the context of museums, an inventory goes way beyond what it is in industry and becomes as much an inventory of provenance and knowledge about the collections and the objects in the collections. And that's why between ‘72 and I would guess’75-’76, we spent a lot of time re-orienting the program and ended up with it becoming the Canadian Heritage Information Network, for—“Canadian” for obvious reasons, “Heritage” because we felt in some ways it went beyond just an inventory of collections. It was more about knowledge. “Information” as opposed to a raw data on “what have you got and where is it?” And we were trying to build a network, a national network to share and exchange that information for a variety of purposes nationally.

KJ: So when you started, you said you were pretty much the only person at the beginning.

PH: I was actually hired as a computer programmer, yeah.

KJ: And so when did it start to grow? When did people start to join and how did that come about?

PH: It started very shortly after that I mean we started I can't remember with exactly it may have been the provincial museums that we initially started talking with and came to the conclusion that work needed to be done, if we were going to share information, work needed to be done on data and information standards. And because technology at the time was incredibly expensive relative to what it is today, the idea of sharing this on a network—and it was also opportune because Canada had just introduced one of the first digital networks in the country, anywhere actually. So, it moved from the old analog telecommunications networks into the digital environment and because of the nature of the country, that network was able to extend from coast to coast. So that was a backbone upon which we could build and we took that opportunity to build on that backbone, because as I said, trying to put technology everywhere in the country was expensive, trying to share it over a network was far less expensive.

NNM: And I think it's really difficult to—well it's difficult for me anyways—to think about this time because this was in the early 1970s, mid 1970s… and so what did a digital network look like at that time? It's not what we imagine today, right?

PH: Well, I mean physically it didn't look much different than it did today. The thing that changed was speed and the speed of the networks. And rather than being based on an analog, sort of voice-based communications network, it started getting into technical things like packet switching and those sorts of
things which allowed much more information to flow across the network than it did on the old analog networks. And there was-- and Canada was unique at that point because there was… Using computer technology to try to keep track of collections and information in museums was just beginning in different parts of the world. And, so there was a group in the US that we actually joined and became part of called the Museum Databank Coordinating Committee. There was a group in the UK called the MDA (Museum Data Association) or something like that, I forget. It was actually part of the Museum Association in the UK. The French were doing a fair bit of work with the museums in France. And there was a lot of exchange and among countries in terms of what the right strategy might be and I think at that time most of the world thought we were nuts to think about developing a network. Because the idea for the use of technology was sort of very batch-process oriented, where you would produce printouts and use the printouts in place of card catalogs and that kind of thing, card indexes.

KJ: So, you started, or you were hired to be the computer programmer and then you moved on to different positions leading to… ultimately at the end, or towards the end, director general…?

PH: Well, I moved right into the job, in my twenties.

KJ: In—as director general? Really?

PH: Well, it wasn't called director general at the time. The position title at the time, because this was the in-house computer department of the National Museums. So I think the job was called Chief of Information Systems or something and then it got renamed probably within a year or two to director of the National Inventory Program and then director of CHIN and ultimately… It was the same job, it just kept getting redefined and eventually, director general of CHIN.

KJ: So you really had your hands in the role of building CHIN to—from its foundation to kind of where it is today.

PH: Yeah, yeah, no, very much so.

KJ: Could you tell us a little bit more about that?

PH: Well, it was it was interesting and challenging because there were as many views about what should be done and how it should be done as there were people around the table. And, so we struck a
National Advisory Committee with probably six or eight members from museums across the country. And the purpose, literally was to provide us with advice and guidance on how we should implement this program, originally, as I said, the National Inventory Program. And, there were views that stretched
everywhere from it should be a simple number, name, place kind of index, through to it had to be something that allowed you to record information about the significance of the objects in a collection because they weren't self-documenting. And, the way in which we recorded that information and tried to standardize some language around that recording, became in many people's view an important component or the central component of how to create a network to share information about the heritage objects, or museum objects and heritage in a broader context, on a national basis.

KJ: And so you had to build a team as well, quite a team, I'm assuming. So, can you tell us a bit about that? How that happened? What were you looking for as far as people's backgrounds in something so new?

PH: Yeah, we started out assuming that this was a computer problem as most technology people do. And realized very quickly when we were sitting in meetings that we were speaking at cross-terms quite often when we would sit down with the curators, collections managers, registrars, and what-have-you, and some computer programmers. So, we started reaching out to Museum Studies programs and brought in a group of people who were coming at it from a museological background and created our Museum Services Group. And, then what we tried to do was to pair up the museum services people with our technology people when we would sit down and have discussions with museums and try to work out the understanding in-house, so that we had a more coherent message when we were talking with museums across the country.

KJ: So, what were some of the challenges that you would have encountered? Because, and even just technology-wise, I mean it's evolved considerably, of course, since the beginning of technology. But,
how did that have an impact or how did that contribute, maybe, to the work that you were doing?

PH: Probably didn't realize that the technology that we had available to us was not good enough. And, our disk drives, for example, were the size of washing machines and they held 25 megabytes per disk drive. So, those are the kinds of limitations. We had to write our own operating system for the first data entry because the first job we undertook was doing data entry. So we hired a few programmers and we hired a larger data entry pool. And, we had records initially from the four national museums at the time being photocopied and shipped over to us and we were doing data entry on them online but in order to create those systems, we had to write our own operating system and regularly spool things off on to tape because of the limitation. I think we had to two disc drives, which gave us a grand total of 50 megabytes of online storage.

KJ: [Laughter] The office environment must have been so different as well, right? With the size of computers and what-not it would have been…

PH: I mean, it was raised flooring and it was back in the days of mainframe computers, yeah.

NNM: Was it exciting to develop all of these new operating systems?

PH: Oh, I mean it was absolutely exciting because, number one, the whole field of computers was new. This was a new project. It was something that museums not only in Canada were looking at but around the world were looking at. So, there were sort of endless days and nights of arguing back and forth about what form the use of computers should take in museums, the extent, whether or not we should be looking at online networks versus… I mean there were—there was a school of thought that said well everything you need to know about a museum object you can put on an 80 column punch card and just store them and once a year produce a printout and use that in place of a card catalog, card index, so.

NNM: And how did you feel about those different…?

PH: You had to love every minute of it. It was, it was challenging, it was unknown. It was full of debate. I mean there were a whole school of people that thought that technology had no place in museums. And, there was actually at the time a columnist. His name was Charlie Lynch.

PH: And Charles Lynch wrote an opinion piece that said using technology in museums to keep track of collections is akin to the monks using photocopiers to do illustrated manuscripts.

NNM: [Laughter] These are some very passionate opinions!

PH: Oh, of course, of course. Yeah, any time you're introducing something new. And nobody was convinced that, you know, computer technology really had a future. You know, people were saying, “Well, you know other than keeping track of your recipes, what would you ever use a personal computer for?”

KJ: So how did you convince people that there was a need for technology in the heritage community and how did you get that buy-in from people?

PH: The challenge in Canada and I mean, there was an international community of people and that community people came together here in North America. We did a lot of exchanges with the US and Mexico, just in terms of thought processes and ideas. We weren't on our own. And as I’d mentioned, all of us kind of came together around CIDOC, the International Committee for Documentation at ICOM and so there was a group of kindred spirits. And we had discussions there. Locally or nationally here in Canada, there was a real debate between say 1973-74 and ‘75-‘76 about what we should do and how we should do it because that was the period, the transition period, between the National Inventory Program and CHIN. Moving in the direction of CHIN implied a considerable increase in effort, because we were talking about a lot more information, a much broader base of collections and a larger set of museums. So that debate largely played out at the board table at the National Museums.

KJ: So the network was really beyond just the Canadian network. It was international, really with contributions or…

PH: No, the network didn't—the network became international in some time in the ‘80s when CCI, CHIN the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) and the conservation department at the Smithsonian, we all got together and started working internationally on conservation information. And that was actually the, sort of, pivotal project that turned CHIN into a Special Operating Agency.

KJ: I see.

NNM: Oh! Interesting!

KJ: Yeah! And you were still involved in all of that?

PH: Yeah, yeah.

KJ: So how did that change for CHIN? How did that… Did the direction of the projects and all change

PH: No, other directly the direction of the program never changed. In that sort of ‘73 to ‘75 period, we'd recognized that we were dealing with more than just collections information, that there was a heritage information component to all of this. And it was the coming together with CCI, the GCI [Getty Conservation Institute] and the Smithsonian to start bringing in the, a lot of the ICOM CC abstracts and what-have-you, that started broadening the base. And then that created a demand for access to our network from outside the country, but bearing in mind that, you know, we were funded by the Canadian taxpayer, how do you justify and warrant that? And so we did it on the basis of a fee for service, service outside the country and but in order to support that service, we needed the revenue in order to augment the technology we had. So Alain Gourd, who was the deputy where—we now transit over to Department of Communications as our home base, along with CCI and the other national programs. Alain, who was the Deputy Minister of Communications at the time, approached Treasury Board on our behalf and said, “We need to make these guys a Special Operating Agency, so that, number one, they can charge for their services and, number two, retain those fees in order to pay for the increased services being offered.” So that made that information basically available to Canadian museums without any additional cost to the taxpayer at that time.

NNM: And that's something that's really interesting about CHIN as an organization is the way that it's continued to evolve and I was sort of under the impression that in the ‘90s there was a big change with the Virtual Museums, but I found this article that you wrote. I think it was published in 1978, actually and in this article from 1978 you're saying, “Although our progress to date has been most encouraging, we have recognized that a redirection of the priorities and philosophy of the program is required.” So, really early on, you recognized that need to continue to evolve.

PH: Yeah, we had done—back in, and I'm guessing here, but I would say the early to mid-80s, we actually created on a CD-ROM, which was brand new at the time, a project for CIDOC [ICOM International Committee For Documentation]. CHIN had created a project for CIDOC that brought together a group of old masters from about 23 museums, I think, in a bunch of countries along with a database on CD. And, so we started that early making, thinking in terms of multimedia. And, that's when we created the, the, a sort of a technology assessment, small Technology Assessment Center. And the idea of the center was to try to push the bleeding edge of some of these technologies to see if they had an application for museums.

KJ: That's impressive. Again, just thinking about how technology was so different too. So, to be able to develop those kinds of things… It’s just amazing.

PH: But it was a different time, it was a very optimistic time, when people were… I mean the National Museums Policy basically came out of 1967, the centennial year and it was a very optimistic time for the country and these programs and ideas were optimistic programs and ideas. It gave us an opportunity to develop approaches and strategies using technology that wasn't quite there yet. Because, at the end of the day, I mean in the mid ‘70s, we realized that a big part of the issue was terminology and standards. And we actually did a lot of work with, sort of language analysis and some of it, in hindsight, is a bit of a precursor to a lot of the stuff that's happening on the web right now. Because we were looking at, you know, we were building databases with fields in them and each field had a label and of course the label for a field gave the context for the data that followed. So, if you said this field contains “materials,” you knew what followed were a list of materials. And we started doing some because museum cataloguing and research had been done using natural language and the only attempt that had been made to any kind of categorization was in a very few domains such as materials, use, what-have-you. So you had things like Murdock and the Outline of Cultural Materials and you had the work that Bob Chenal had done on Nomenclature and what-have-you. And we started looking at the collection of words that we were taking from the data entry that was being done, in the context of the fields we'd identified, through the work of national committees in different disciplines and realized that if we collected about three million words at random, we'd have almost all of the unique words that would ever exist. And so, the initial approach to building data dictionaries and terminology standards was just that, you know, let it go, collect the words, and start analyzing them and processing them after the fact in order to look at where the commonalities that might be. Because there was no agreement at all as to whether or not
collections and nor should there have been, whether or not collections should be organized by any one facet of what they are. So, whether it was you know, function, use, material, whatever. There was no agreement around that at the time. So central to what the program was all about was the development of those data and information standards.

NNM: To someone who isn't familiar with or isn't as familiar as you with the concept of data and collections, what is the importance of cataloguing in this way?

PH: The uses that museum staff, be they curators, researchers, educators, conservators, the use they're going to make of the collections and the information around the collections is basically unknown, because that's why they're doing research. And so, what you're trying to do, is support an activity that could branch off at any given opportunity in a new direction. And so, if you try to constrain it, then the
utility of the information you're recording i.e. if you create just an inventory of “give it a number, give it a shelf, and give it a name,” then that doesn't support the uses to which the collection will be put, in many ways. It does from a material management, you know, a certain industrial material management point of view, but it doesn't in terms of trying to support information and knowledge about heritage.

NNM: You can look at a list of objects but you won't know anything about them, I guess, yeah.

PH: Yeah well, yeah and so much of the significance of the collections is in what is known about them. Not simply the fact that an object exists and where it is and so, and that was a big part of the initial debate, right? As to whether or not what we needed was a list of what a museum has and what shelf it's on. Or should we be looking more expansively in terms of a knowledge base about the collections.

NNM: Something that's interesting to me that I want to ask about is because this National Inventory Program was created by the federal government but the client base were museums… So how did museums react to the existence of this program?

PH: There was a spectrum of reactions. I mean, there were some people that felt that computerizing
the information about museum collections would be a threat to the collections. Because people would find out what was where and I remember—I can't remember who it was—but being at a meeting somewhere and this debate was taking place and somebody said, “Well, you know, if we recorded the existence of all the gold coins in our collection, everybody would know where they were and we're going to be burglarized.” And somebody else at the meaning stood up and said, “If anybody ever showed an interest in your collection, you'd show them exactly where they were.” So, there, you know, there were thoughts kinds of competing points of view.

KJ: That must have been a challenge though—to have to manage that as well? You know, with the community?

PH: It wasn't that there was a resistance to the idea. It was unknown. Because I mean computers were unknown things. A lot of people didn't know what this program was about and they had no reference point. I mean conservation had been done in museums for so long, the people understood its function and role. People didn't understand what using the technology or what using computer technology in museums would yield, at the end of the day. And whether or not it was a positive effect or a waste of money.

NNM: And when you reflect back now on the technology that was shared with museums through CHIN, what kind of an impact do you think that had on museums?

PH: In my mind, it was never about the technology. I mean it was about the technology as a tool, but it was really about information management in museums and I hope that's the lasting legacy. My view on the technology front was always, I mean this is from 1975 forward, was always that as the technology became affordable within a museum, that the data management function should migrate back into the museum; that it's not something that needs to, nor should be done on a national network. So that was the reason that we retained in those earlier years, individual databases for each museum and then extracted from each of those databases, a subset of information that at the time we put into two national databases: one for the natural sciences and one for everything else. And, with the idea that when a museum could afford to, or when the technology hardware and software became available for them to implement in-house systems, those databases could be picked up lock, stock and barrel and just migrated into the museum and then they could still continue to make contributions back to any kind of national sharing. So that was always the design. And, so it wasn't—it was the use of technology for reasons of economy of scale and convenience at the time, not any sort of philosophical belief that heritage information should be centrally managed.

KJ: Is there anything else that you would like to—that we should talk about anything that you thought maybe we would discuss today that we didn't, we didn't get into?

PH: There were two people that I think were really important to both– well, not only both, but to the national programs, in that era and they were Jennifer McQueen and Bob Nichols.

KJ: Jennifer, we've heard through Brian Arthur. Please, yes, we would love to hear about that.

PH: I mean both Jennifer and Bob were marvelous people and really staunch, staunch supporters for the work that the national programs were doing within the museum community in Canada. I can remember having lunch with Bob and the person, I forget his title but he was the head of museums—the national museums or whatever, in Scotland. And there had been a steady influx of people coming in to see the work that was been done at CCI and CHIN and what-have-you and Bob asked this guy, he said, “You know, why are we were receiving so many international visitors?” And he said, “Because, you know, museum collections are museum collections, but what Canada's doing because of the national programs is innovative and new.” And so, it was the support from people like Jennifer, Bob and also Ian Christy Clark who was Secretary General at the time that we did the shift between the National Inventory Program and CHIN. He was Secretary General of the National Museums and went on to become Canada's ambassador to UNESCO and the chair of the Moveable Cultural Property Program. And Ian—and I can still remember we actually named CHIN in Minneapolis because when we did the shift, we weren't sure how we were going to find the funding to get the technology that was necessary to support this new vision. And Control Data, which was one of the large computer companies at the time had developed a system called the Pictorial and Artifact Retrieval Information System [PARIS] and they had designated that system to go to a country in Europe and the deal fell apart and so they approached us and offered us a really significant incentive to adopt it and that was the PARIS system that we ended up using. And, so we were down with Bob, Ian and myself meeting with the founder of Control Data in Minneapolis and I can remember sitting there and having an argument one night. Ian wanted to call it the Canadian Heritage Information Program. And, I was adamant that it be the Canadian Heritage Information Network because I thought network was component—was an important part and then I pointed out to Ian that the CHIP program [Canadian Home Insulation Program] was the program that encouraged people to put urea formaldehyde foam in their houses. And, so that name went by the wayside very quickly.

KJ: [Laughing] That's how you won that…(laughter)

PH: It was an incredible opportunity I mean, it talked me out of university. [Laughter]

[Music: “Here’s Where Things Get Interesting” by Lee Rosevere from the album “Music for Podcasts 6.” Style: Electronic Minimalism]

Thank you to Peter Homulos and to my co-host Kelly Johnson

NNM: "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

Who would you like us to interview as a part of this podcast? Find us on Facebook at Canadian Conservation Institute and let us know.

Next time on the podcast:

“I remember I was sent with Jane Holland, we were sent to a Museum in Miramichi. Both of us were textile conservators and we were sent there, and this was the museum for chainsaws. (Laughter)

END 38:47

Peter Homulos recounts how he went from being a geology student to a director of the National Inventory Programme, the precursor of the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN), all before he was 30 years old. The mandate of the Programme was to maintain the records of Canada’s cultural properties, but it evolved into creating a computerized inventory of collections to facilitate the sharing of information. It was also responsible for research and development on information management, collections documentation standards and collections management systems. From a modern perspective, it is difficult to convey how groundbreaking and even controversial this initiative was.

Lyn Elliot Sherwood: Director General of CHIN, 1993–2003

Listen on Apple Podcasts - “Lyn Elliot Sherwood: Director General of CHIN, 1993–2003”

Listen on Google Podcasts - “Lyn Elliot Sherwood: Director General of CHIN, 1993–2003”

Transcript of episode “Lyn Elliot Sherwood: Director General of CHIN, 1993–2003”

Transcript of episode “Lyn Elliot Sherwood: Director General of CHIN, 1993–2003”

Episode length: 00:00:44:12

[Music: "We Don’t Know How it Ends" by Lee Rosevere from the album Music for Podcasts 6. Style: Electronic Minimalism]

Lyn Elliot Sherwood (LES): He headed the potato museum in Prince Edward Island. He said, “We at the Museum, we have a picture of Marilyn Monroe in a potato sack. Do you think that would be something that people would like to see on the Internet?” “Yes, I think they would like to see that very much!”

Nathalie Nadeau Mijal (NNM):  I'm Nathalie Nadeau Mijal and this is "CCI and CHIN: In Our Words".

Today’s episode marks our first interview about the Canadian Heritage Information Network, otherwise known as CHIN. And how fitting that our first interviewee from CHIN is Lyn Elliott Sherwood. She was the Director General of CHIN from 1993 to 2003. She then went on to become the Executive Director of Heritage. During her time at CHIN, she was responsible for the creation of the organization’s most well-known program, the Virtual Museum of Canada. The VMC is a collection of online exhibits created by Canadian museums. The program is still ongoing, but it is now managed by the Canadian Museum of History. Lyn Elliott Sherwood is retired, but she remains very passionate about her work. 

She started by explaining how her career led her to CHIN.

[Music fades.]

LES: I then went, after a number of years, to take on a job that was the most relevant to what I then needed to be able to do at CHIN and that was to set up an electronic communications network for senior executives across the government. This was 1989; no executives had computers on their desks. That was very déclassé, you would—you know, only support staff had computers on their desks. They had tried for two years to do this with a very technical orientation. It had failed and they said to me, as someone who really didn't know much about technology, “Would you take this on and make it happen for us?” So, we started with deputy ministers because we knew if we didn't get the deputy ministers, nobody below deputy ministers would buy in and so there were issues of assessing how you make something work, how you get buy-in to things. We had to get the technical groups on board we had to find software and platform that would work on this. [Laughter] You didn't want something that would require deputy ministers to go to computer school and we wanted not just communication, but we wanted content that would be of interest to a target audience as well and that was very high stakes, high risk, high pressure. We did it. By the time the Department of Communications was abolished in 1993, we had over 3,000 federal executives hooked in. We had content services. I then, also in that period, took on the job of DG of Informatics for the department, again without the technical background, but I learned a lot!

As I said-- 1993 the department was folded and its component parts went off to different departments one of which was the Department of Canadian Heritage, the new Department of Canadian Heritage. So, I spent about six months doing strategic planning and transition there and at the end of that period they said, “Right, we have to find a job for you because we have five other directors general of Informatics.” So, that's the point at which I had the choice of either being the DG of Broadcast Policy or the DG and Chief Operating Officer for CHIN and CHIN was the one that spoke to my heart.

NNM: What was it about CHIN that, you say, captured your heart?

LES: Well, I think it was a number of things. One is the heritage dimension to it, which is something that had always been important to me personally. It just looked like a far more interesting job at the time. It was also a job that suited my personal life. I was a single parent and I knew that I could bring the problems home in my head and think about them, whereas broadcast policy always had crises at quarter to 5:00 in the afternoon that you had to solve by midnight.

Kelly Johnson (KJ): I'd like to just take a step back. When you say that you didn't have the technical background in the years that you were working on a fairly technical file, how did you deal with that?

LES: I had two questions: “Why not?” and “Is it actually working somewhere?” and those two questions I found to be really useful in talking with technical people. What it drove me towards and what was the reason the senior executive network succeeded where it had failed previously is we used off-the-shelf products. As opposed to going into the background to spend years trying to develop things with small teams that weren't necessarily equipped to be pioneering technology and user groups that were definitely not equipped to be suffering the pains of insufficiently trialed technology.

KJ: Interesting. I always find it so fascinating when people don't necessarily have the background in something specific but have that mentality of “Why not?” and “Let's see where this takes us.”

LES: The question “Why not?” was when people told me things couldn't be done. That's where I used the question “Why not?” Let me understand, because maybe we can find a way through it and I found when you ask someone, an expert why not it very often stimulates thinking and brings people to a solution.

NNM: Because you're asking for an explanation.

LES: And as they think their way through “Why not?” the lightbulbs go off. “Oh! If we did this we could fix that!” So that's the “Why not?” question was designed for me to understand why things couldn't be done, but also I discovered, had the added benefit of stimulating other people's creative thinking.

KJ: Coming back to CHIN, when you accepted the position as director of CHIN, could you tell us what

CHIN was like at that time?

LES: CHIN was a healthy mature organization that had been building a very strong capacity in collections management over more than 20 years at that point, in fact, probably closer to 25 years. It was also an organization that had started to experiment with things like CD ROMs, which were new and video discs and new technologies. At the same time, it was an organization that knew it needed to confront the fact that computing power was becoming affordable by at least the larger museums, which was something that was certainly new and that lack of affordability of computing power was one of the reasons why CHIN had developed its early model of having a centralized mainframe computer into which client museums connected. Collections management software designed to be used on smaller computers and used by individual museums was becoming available and in the early

1990s, the deficit had hit the government and one of the challenges was that every organization was being faced with financial pressures. So, we had both a tremendous strength in collections management but also a context in which some of the assumptions about what CHIN was, why it existed and how it existed were about to be challenged.

KJ: How large was the team at the time, or the organization I should say?

LES: I think we were about 25 people. We had a very small budget. Most of the budget went to two things: one was salaries and the other was the cost of the mainframe computer and when I got there it had practically a whole floor to itself in the building we were in. One of the things we were able to do quite early, first of all we moved to leasing a smaller computer, which meant we could combine forces with the IT department. I think that was an 8,000 square foot computer, which we leased and then we were able to persuade the ADM [assistant deputy minister] responsible for corporate finance at year-end, one year that we could buy that out. So we were able to free up a little bit of cash but we basically had no cash. We had no cash and on top of all of those things, in ’94-’95, the World Wide Web burst onto the scene. So, that's the other contextual element. So, there CHIN is, with its traditional business model of a mainframe computer and remote access on one hand and no money and there's the World Wide Web and a whole new opportunity and there's a major financial cut from government all programs were asked to cut by 33%. So, that was the initial challenge in the first 18 months at CHIN. So, part of the, “How are we going to handle the major cut?” Is it that we do everything but not as well? Or, do we actually rethink what we're going to do? CHIN’s role was under threat, continuing with that role was not feasible.

KJ: What was it like to be director general of CHIN?

LES: It was exciting. It was scary. It was incredibly rewarding and all of those three things go together because as a team we took on the challenge of saying, “The world is changing, the money's changing, the organization needs to change.” And what we did in 95 when we had the demand that we find 33% of our non-existent budget-- to give it away [Laughter] we did a series of cross country consultations with client museums and we asked, “What's important to you about CHIN? And what do you think CHIN should be doing?” And we didn't prompt. We made no assumptions about what was going forward and what came out-- collections management was not first on the list and in many cases was not mentioned at all.

We brought a consultant in to do that with us and at that point, I had in my head a sense of moving forward to a different use of the information and a different way in which to use information and it was a question of starting to flesh that out and at the same time this new medium, the Internet, the World Wide Web, provided a way to think differently and to think, not just about museums, but about the general public and a link between the general public and museum information. So, the transition of coming to a decision that the thing we would eliminate, as part of that financial cut, was a centralized collections management service, while still trying to maintain the National Inventories, while having no real money to invest in a new way forward… That was the “tightrope” moment. I would say 1995 and from 1995 through to 1999 was a “tightrope” period, as we were finding new ways to do things, experimenting with new things, understanding the challenges that we would face in making that transition. One of them was maintaining relationships with museums, some of whom made very clear to me after our consultations that they had just assumed the collections management function and that's why they hadn't raised it. Some of them were technical challenges. If we still want information fed to the National Inventories, how is that going to happen? Museums did their entire collections management function remotely on the CHIN mainframe and CHIN essentially skimmed a layer of information off the top. Those were the National Inventories. If we were no longer going to have that underlying information, how did we get the new information?

Rob Dallas, on his holidays one-year, decided he was going to develop the application, the protocol for getting the information shared in a different way from museums who were using their own collections management software. Rob was “Mr. Mainframe” but Rob made this incredible mental transition on his own, and got excited and made that happen because it was a problem he wanted to solve and the team at CHIN-- that's one example, the team at CHIN-- phenomenal, full of people who would take that idea. We wanted to try virtual exhibits. We had no money. Danielle Boily, who was working on that side, was superb at going and finding little pots of money. Ooh! La Francophonie has a little bit of project money. We can use that. We can get people to volunteer here. So, the kind of initiative and innovative spirit that the team members at CHIN had through that period as we were testing these ideas starting to get museums into a new mode of contributing to the National Inventories, starting to develop a new set of training modules around some of the issues with the Web, starting to think of new services: a guide to Canadian museums, which we were able to start having people feed, partly with a partnership with the CMA [Canadian Museums Association], which—that was interested in also finding ways to promote Canadian museums and the idea was that all these people using the World Wide Web would want to be visiting museums and if they could find out opening hours and the kind of theme of museums and where they were, that would help drive traffic to museums. So, museums-- we developed this idea of more “member museums” and a museum of any size could participate by feeding information to the guide to Canadian museums. So, it was building a new set of relationships not just with the sort of 103 or whatever, big museums raising collections management service but this idea that we would work with museums of all sizes across the country to use this new medium to help them connect to audiences.

Then the next wave-- and I mentioned 1999-- we had a new Deputy Minister at CHIN, Alex Himelfarb, and it was in the fall of 1999 and we were-- every branch, every organization was doing its initial presentation and so at this point we have pieces that might be part of it what later became the Virtual Museum. We had the guide. We had a few virtual exhibitions. Our first one was about Christmas and was December 1995. So, very early; but, I'm racking my brain: how do you get a Deputy Minister who works in policy and big picture excited? And I'm sort of at midnight the night before our briefing I said, “Okay, Canada's heritage is a jigsaw. It's a jigsaw that exists all across the country and what we are trying to do is put the pieces of that jigsaw together and create in effect of virtual museum of Canada,” and I used that line in the briefing and he literally jumped out of his chair and said, “I love it! I love it! Give me words for a speech from the throne.” It was one of the most exciting moments I've ever had as a public servant. To have someone that excited about an idea that you've just articulated and the department at the time was trying to put together a broader culture online strategy and we were in the speech from the throne. We were actually in the budget plan. The words “virtual museum, there will be a Virtual Museum of Canada funded…” actually came about. So, by the time we got that money which was budget 2000, we had a very clear idea of where we wanted to go and what the possibilities were, with enough money to be able to do a proper platform, to invest in the creation of content and to take those ideas and just expand them and we spent a really intense year.

We did 14 consultations across the country with museums of all sizes; trying to, sort of work out what this beast would look like, the Virtual Museum of Canada; designing an investment program and getting a sample group of virtual exhibitions ready for a launch. We hired a-- radical concept—a marketing person, a marketing and sponsorships person: Stéphane Cherpit. And Stéphane was brilliant. Stéphane lined up a sponsorship from Pattison that gave us six million dollars with billboards and bus shelter advertisements when we were launching, which was phenomenal. Across—and that was across the country and our first big theme, our first big poster advertising, our billboards were “Take your mouse to the museum,” and we had billboards across the country, bus shelters across the country. So, we had all of these elements and on March 22nd 2001, which was just thirteen months after the budget announcement, we did a live launch of the Virtual Museum at the Art Gallery of Ontario and with our fingers crossed and I, with instructions to stay away from all of the computers because I have a very bad impact on live computer demos. Computers cease functioning when I stand too close to them. So, [laughter] I was not allowed to stand close to any of the computers and we did a very successful live launch and one of the things I'm proudest of was an email that we got about four weeks later, three or four weeks later. After we launched from a man who lived, I think, somewhere in a small town in southern Ontario saying, you know, “I live in a place where I don't have access to museums and you have made this possible for me to see and for my children to see and I'm really happy to see my tax dollars being spent like this. Thank you,” and as a public servant that was a wonderful, wonderful reaction to have.

KJ: So you were-- you mentioned how you had 14 consultations throughout Canada. How did the museums that you met with react to this?

LES: I would say the major reaction was excitement. There was skepticism. There was, “Well I don't know if we'll be interested,” but there was also a level of enthusiasm. There was also the inevitable chorus of, “Well this wouldn't have been our priority to spend money on, so why are you spending money on this?” and “it should have gone to MAP,” to the Museums Assistance Program – to which you say, “It's not that there was a pot of money marked ‘museums’ and we all sat around and said, ‘Oh yeah, we'll ignore all the priorities and spend it on this.’” What there was, was an opportunity to become part of the government's interest in the online world and moving in that direction and an opportunity to make museums part of that so there was enough enthusiasm and I'm not going to remember the man's name but he headed the potato museum in Prince Edward Island and he came to the consultation and it wasn't entire sure about this but he said, “Well, you know, we at the museum, we have a picture of Marilyn Monroe in a potato sack. Do you think that would be something that people would like to see on the Internet?” And I said, “Yes, I think they would like to see that very much!” And I don't know that I have seen it but he, you know, he said he was 83 years old. He was a volunteer working with a very, you know, a small community museum and he was really excited by the ideas and we certainly had younger directors and younger people within museums who were excited.

A lot of people-- because this was so new the technology was still very new at that at that point, museums had so many other priorities. I think one of the keys for us is that part of the money we got was the investment program so it was a series-- it was a not grants, these were contracts to create virtual exhibits and part of the financial equation that we use that I think was really important in saying, “This is not just government funded. Institutions are also investing in this.” When museums made their images available and we encouraged people to start adding images to the national inventories. If you had to license images, there's a cost to that. So, we were able to portray this accurately as a partnership between the government and museums with an intellectual property value that they were contributing to the effort in addition to the contracts that we were issuing to create content. One of the challenges that we had with the virtual exhibitions is that the scope, scale, and sophistication that we were looking for was generally beyond the reach of the smaller museums and we very much wanted to include them in this mix. I think for 50 at the time about 1,500 community museums across the country. That's really important part of the jigsaw puzzle of Canada's heritage and in September 2001 I was speaking at a conference in the UK and the group that was speaking immediately after me was a group called Commanet, which had developed archival software designed to be used by community groups one of their big drivers-- mines were closing down in Britain and the miners associations wanted a way to kind of capture the memories. It was a software designed for use by people who didn't know computers: large print, large font format, usable by seniors, some controlled vocabulary elements and I got really excited because I thought this could be easily adapted to provide a tool for small museums in Canada. So, I kind of—I let them finish their talk, but I practically dragged them off the stage after their talk and said okay come to Canada! I want to first to meet with the team and show them what we have and I decided we would start with Newfoundland, which had a very high number of community museums. So, within I think about six weeks we had them come over, bring the software over. They met with the team. The team went back and forth, back and forth and I should note that by now, CHIN is 65 people. So we've grown by you know a good 40 people, yes there are lots of different expertise. So, we took the people from Commanet and some of our staff to Newfoundland we did two meetings one in St. John's and the other in Gander with the community museum people. We showed them the Commanet software and we said, “Would you be willing to pilot this?” and they got excited and they said yes we will be willing to pilot this and we had I don't remember the number of museums that signed on. One of the loveliest exhibits: it was a mother's suitcase. It was a museum that bought some suitcases at an auction just to dress up an exhibit. In one of the suitcases, the suitcase was full of letters between a mother and her son during the First World War and they used their Community Memories software to bring that to life. So that was, you know, another-- I'm trying to share “goose-bump” moments with you.

NNM: I got them.

LES: That was “goose-bump” moment for me. [Laughter] Over time, the Community Memories software-- one of the projects that CHIN and staff undertook was to find a way to be able to search across the Community Memories exhibits and that was after my time at that CHIN but that was something again when we talked about pulling the jigsaw together. That is the way to look at information in different ways. Given the museum in Newfoundland and a museum in Vancouver could have had similar themes and similar issues to explore and finding ways to make greater use of the Community Memories exhibits and simply the individual exhibits in the same way that you can search more broadly across other content.

So, the Community Memories project and getting that piece of the puzzle in place is probably my last, sort of, major shift, major piece of the puzzle that I undertook before I went on to a different job. It was really exciting and those were done-- that was very simply-- those were flat fee contracts of $5,000 and that amount was chosen because it enabled the museums to buy a computer, to get set up and, you know, maybe buy coffee and biscuits for the volunteers. And, there was some pushback from the archival community of something because it was archival and this wasn't proper. This wasn't archival and you could incorporate voice clips and sound clips. “Well that's not proper oral history!” And so, there are always, within the heritage community, these rivalries as to who gets to own which piece of heritage. I think for, especially for community museums, the heritage is the local literature, it is the local stories, it's the objects that are meaningful, the special objects that are meaningful, and in every community museum, it's also all the things that came from Sears or Eaton's on the train that arrived in the community as the basic things of life. So, I think the community museums serve a very integrated role in heritage in their communities.

KJ: One thing that really stands out to me when you when you talk about the Virtual Museum is how from the moment you more or less got the approval to go ahead with this project and it was included in the speech from the throne to the moment that it was launched-- you mentioned it was about 13 months. How did you make that happen in 13 months? What did that look like?

LES: That looked like hell on wheels! [Laughter] It happened because there was a team of really good people who really worked their tails off that year. It happened, as well, because of the work we had done between 1995 and 1999 (at the beginning of 2000) of testing ideas. So, we knew how a virtual exhibit could be done. We have been doing training for museums. The idea of designing a website, you know, a portal that was attractive, that people could come into that was new, but the elements like the guide to museums, we had started with building the image gallery, which was the tip of the iceberg for the collections management system. We had some of those pieces in place but it was mostly a team of really creative people, who could solve problems, who could come up with solutions that they knew would work. They had they had the technical expertise. They had the content expertise and for me it was because we have both the technical people and the content people working together. I had a really bad habit of going and mulling things over at night and I'd come in in the morning and say, “I've been thinking,” and everybody used to run. I guess… [laughter] but we challenged all the way through that development and one of the things that I've found personally really meaningful is as we all kind of collapsed in a heap at the end of that process it was a couple of months before the public service week and one of the departmental awards that you could get where you had to be nominated by staff was the people management award. And, I felt like I'd killed the team. I felt like I had been horrible. I felt like I'd been a slave driver and just an awful manager to get this done and the team nominated me and I just I completely and utterly lost it in the ceremony because I didn't expect that. I wouldn't have expected that, but I think everybody in the team took ownership of the project and its success and that was a fabulous group to work with—fabulous! Excuse me, I'm going to weep now.

KJ: [Laughter] No it's touching actually you're getting me… You're making me emotional too, but I think it's a testament though to your leadership and it kind of goes back to what you said at the very beginning on, you know, the reason why you accepted to go work in a technical environment was: “Why not?” And, you know, you challenged the people to kind of think otherwise and I think that's probably what led you through this project and your team probably just really enjoyed having that-- I don't want to say freedom but that liberty of being able to be to be challenged but also listened to and see that whatever they were proposing was actually leading to something as opposed to you just saying, “No, no, no, this isn't going to work.”

LES: I'm not going to pretend that in 1995, when we made the major change about getting out of the collections management business, that that was welcomed by everyone in the organization. There was a lot of tension. I found the tension really interesting because when I looked at the group and

who was really nervous and anxious and negative about it and who was positive and looking forward, the people who had been with CHIN since the beginning, who'd already lived through the major change in 19… I think it was 1981 it might have been 1982-- were actually very accepting of the idea that the organization had to evolve. The people who had come into CHIN since then and had only seen one model for CHIN were very worried that in this process that we would lose the possibility of continuing the National Inventories and that museums would not be able to make the transition to doing their own collections management electronically. And, some people did choose to leave the organization at that time.

NNM: They didn't have that experience of the resilience that the organization had.

LES: That's right and some people, we were able to retain by offering a different role. If you feel you can't lead this new change, you still have a lot of skills and gifts and we'd like to keep you on board. So, some people it was possible to do that. In other cases, it was… people needed to and chose to move on and that's tough. That's tough for an organization and it's the stuff that keeps you awake at night thinking did we get it right? Have I got it right? You know, I take that personally. Am I taking a fabulous organization that's had an extraordinary track record, am I leading it in the right direction? That's really nerve-racking. So, when I said earlier “scary”-- that's the scary.

NNM: Did you have a thought or a belief that convinced you that you were going in the right direction?

LES: I certainly had the belief that what we had been doing… it could either dwindle slowly or quickly because the world was moving in a particular direction and museums were going to move with it. I had the excitement that this was a way for museums to continue to connect to a new generation and if museums chose to ignore the virtual world, they would be missing out on an opportunity and part of that was driven personally. When I took on the senior executive network, my son was six and we happened to have an Apple computer with a mouse, which I continually picked up and tried to use like a remote because I… [laughter] He came into the office at six and we didn't have a computer at home. He came into the office and said, “Oh! Can I use the mouse?” and knew exactly what he was doing with it and just totally and it was an Apple Computer. It had something on it that he could play with or draw with or something and I looked at my son and then he was born in 1983. So, he was in, you know, late teens by the time the virtual museum was happening I could see what he was interested in and how he reacted to technology and how his friends reacted to technology and when you start to think about the future and museums’ challenge that it's older people who at school children who get taken and older people who have developed the habit of museums over a lifetime… How do you start to bridge that gap and make a connection to museums relevant to people whose expectations and experiences are different because they're growing up in a different era? So, that for me--ensuring that connection and keeping it vital was probably the big driver for me.

KJ: That's very interesting. I was-- my other question that I was going to ask next was, what kind of impact have you noticed that CHIN had on museums but I think, in a sense, you touch on that with what you just shared with us. Is there anything else you would like to add to that?

LES: I think what I would say, the impact for CHIN-- collections management and a clear understanding of what you have in your in your collections is critical to the function of a museum. Nothing else in a museum happens without that and without then the physical preservation of the objects and but the knowledge about those objects is a key part of that preservation. So if I look at CHIN’s history, building that and reinforcing that competency within museums from the beginning has been critical. In the era where finding reliable information on the Internet was tricky, encouraging first quality content and b) helping people find reliable content and helping museums understand the skill sets involved in—first, in sort of creating virtual exhibitions but then secondly becoming visible in the Internet world. Those are all really critical elements but it all starts at the early end. It's the stuff! You know? It's the stuff! It's the objects, the artifacts and it is the knowledge around those artifacts .Whatever element of the activities you're looking at whether it's collections management or the virtual museum. Those are two ends of the same spectrum.

KJ: When you talk about CHIN, we can sense the emotions and the pride that you had about being

Director General at CHIN. What made you want to move on?

LES: I thought I deserved a promotion. I thought, you know, the job in 2002 was quite different from the job I'd taken on in 1993. It was bigger and I said, “I really think we should look at reclassifying this position,” and Alex Himmelfarb, the very wonderful deputy who jumped out of his chair and said “Yes!” to the virtual museum responded by saying, “You can have a promotion but only if you agree to take on heritage policy as well,” and so it was really kind of a falling into a new job by default and I would have found I emotionally very difficult to leave CHIN completely. I could not have detached myself completely from CHIN, I think, at that point. You're quite right to see the emotion when I talk about—it’s the most extraordinary opportunity to have been able to do that job in that era with that group of people. Phenomenal. And so that idea that I could continue to do it but also situated within a broader context and, at that point, in my in my spare time, I had been asked to chair a sort of policy table that included the departmental policy, heritage policy group but also the heritage agencies within the Canadian Heritage portfolio. So, I had actually been doing that for about a year, you know, with a series of meetings and working towards a heritage policy framework at the time. So, it was kind of a natural-- I mean if you’re going to ask me to do these things, it would be really nice if you paid me to do them. That was part of the impact, but the opportunity was to continue to see how CHIN fit within the universe and to promote its part of that broader universe along with CCI and the heritage policy and the cultural property exports provisions and tax provisions and the Museums Assistance Program and the Indemnification Program and you start to see that they're all part of a broader story, which is you have the objects and the knowledge about the objects and how to preserve them. There's no point, in a sense, in that if you don't also have access and that can be through travelling exhibitions, that can be through virtual exhibitions, that can be through supporting the opportunity for museums to acquire significant objects that are threatened with export or that people are willing to donate and made more willing to donate as a result of tax incentives. There's also a huge capacity-building and knowledge-building element and there was expertise within CHIN, within CCI, that fell into that capacity-building model. There's also funding through the Museums Assistance Program. So, it was seeing all of those different pieces and how each of them contributed to the health of the museum community and the ability of the museum community to connect with its audiences in any form. So, that was a really-- that was a logical transition but I wondered… There were days when I thought, “I really wish I'd stayed at CHIN because this is a really neat problem to be solving,” and occasionally I think it was probably really hard particularly for the DG who replaced me. I found it really hard to be “hands-off.”

I've been retired for seven years you know… you look back on things and you think… I continue to think I was extraordinarily lucky to have had the chance to work at CHIN when I did, with people I worked with. Thank you. I'll get weepy again.

[Music: “Here’s Where Things Get Interesting” by Lee Rosevere from the album “Music for Podcasts 6.” Style: Electronic Minimalism]

NNM: Thank you to Lyn Elliot Sherwood 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.

Who would you like us to interview as a part of this podcast? Find us on Facebook at Canadian Conservation Institute and let us know.

Next time on the podcast…

Peter Homulus (PH): And I said, “What’s that?” And went home, looked it up in the encyclopedia and the word “computer” wasn’t in my encyclopedia.

Our first guest from the Canadian Heritage Information Network, otherwise known as CHIN, is Lyn Elliott Sherwood. She was the Director General of CHIN from 1993 to 2003. She then went on to become the Executive Director of the Heritage Group at the Department of Canadian Heritage. During her time at CHIN, she was responsible for the creation of the organization’s most well-known program, the Virtual Museum of Canada (VMC). The VMC is a collection of online exhibits contributed by Canadian museums and heritage institutions. The program is still ongoing but is now managed by the Canadian Museum of History. Lyn Elliott Sherwood spoke to hosts Nathalie Nadeau Mijal and Kelly Johnson about her favourite heart-stirring moments while working at CHIN.

The Virtual Museum of Canada provides free access to its many online exhibits.

Judy Logan: adventures of an archaeological conservator

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Transcript of episode “Judy Logan: adventures of an archaeological conservator”

Transcript of episode “Judy Logan: adventures of an archaeological conservator”

Episode length: 00:47:28

[Music: “We Don’t Know How it Ends” by Lee Rosevere from the album “Music for Podcasts 6.” Style: Electronic Minimalism]

Judy Logan (JL): Something is inside it here, if shake, oh yeah, shake, shake how do we open it to find out what's in it-  Take a hacksaw to it. So we let Bob do it and this thing fell out just wet, wet, green thing, piece of something, it was wet and it was slimy and it was [gasp].

Nathalie Nadeau Mijal (NNM):  I'm Nathalie Nadeau Mijal and this is "CCI and CHIN: In Our Words".

Indiana Jones made archaeology look pretty exciting - but just wait until you hear about the archaeological conservator...

Today, you’ll meet Judy Logan. She was a senior archaeological conservator at the Canadian Conservation Institute from 1981 to 2006. Judy had a remarkable career travelling to archaeological sites around the world. In this interview, you can truly her feel her sense of excitement for the discoveries she made along the way. We really appreciated Judy's candor, in the following interview, she not only talked about her achievements but also some of her mistakes too. We began by asking her what she studied...

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JL: Alrighty, yes. I studied at the University of Calgary I took archaeology as a major in English as a minor and got my bachelor degree in 1971 and during that time I had the opportunity to do field work paid field work in those days you always got paid if you were working on an archaeology project and I moved to Ottawa in 1972 and very fortunately got a job within a few months with Parks Canada in October of 1972. They were hiring people for their newly formed Conservation Division and at that time there were literally no trained Canadian conservators in Canada, there were no conservation programs this was a brand-new field. It was sort of like being in the right place at the right time and Parks Canada was hiring people literally off the street to work as technicians in their conservation division. They had Brian Arthur who was imported from the UK to head up that division, Lisa Mibach who was his assistant who came to Canada from the Smithsonian and they had a chemist who was Canadian, hired at that time just to be a chemist and Julia Fenn or Julia King and that was it and the rest of us who they were hiring had no training whatsoever. I had my interview with Lisa and fortunately my background in archaeology and the subjects I had studied at Calgary, like geology and biology, basic sciences, had given me a really good introduction to conservation, although I didn't know it at the time, turned out to be a good background and also when I had been a student at Calgary I had realized that something had to happen to artifacts before they went into a museum because when you're excavating them you have all these filthy artifacts right? But, um, it was only when I met Lisa and during that interview and I realized this is it, this is what it's called and literally they hired me that day. They said, "When can you start work?" and I said, "Monday", and he said, "Okay". That was October 1972, so that was my start in conservation.

NNM: You found out what conservation was during your job interview?

JL: Literally and when I was in archeology at that time, we didn't use the word conservation. What we were doing was basic conservation, you had to process artifacts, you had to clean them, you had to identify them. We would stick pottery together rather badly, very badly in fact, but I realized that something else had to happen, but it wasn't a formal thing. And of course at that time literally, archaeological conservation in North America was a new field as well. It was fairly well established in Europe, but in Canada we're talking, this is brand-new and in archaeology in fact was not a brand new profession, but just getting off the ground in terms of an organized profession in Canada. The Canadian archaeological Association was founded in the 1960s, mid 1960s, so you know we're talking young and everybody was young. It was an exciting time to be around and start to learn things and literally start to learn. Later on, they hired a few other people, non-Canadians coming in who also became really good friends and mentors. Charles Hett, for instance from the UK, who wound up being my teacher, my boss, my guardian angel in many ways, because I owe a lot of my career to Charles. The other thing in the government at that time, you have to realize, that the federal government was putting a lot of money into programs that promoted Canadian culture and identity and I think this all stems from our Centennial in 67, and the governments literally were putting in a lot of money to try to develop Canadian identity and unity across the country. You have to realize we were coming off the FLQ crisis too, so this was a priority for the government at the time, and I was very fortunate, many of us were very fortunate that they were putting money into educational programs and they had big budgets, big, big amounts allocated in their budget to train Canadians about how to care for our own culture and patrimony. So, I was extremely fortunate that the Queen's Master Art of Conservation program was founded in around 1974. They took their first class then and Parks Canada very generously sent me there on educational leave. I was one of the embers in the third class they took, so I went there in 1976 and graduated in 1978 courtesy of Parks Canada, which was the best gift you could ever get. And I was working as a student, being paid part of my salary and my educational expenses and it was really quite wonderful. The other thing that Parks Canada was doing at that time, was they had a informal training program for their staff, so prior to going to Queen's, I had had the opportunity of meeting a lot of top conservators who they brought in to give us one week courses on conservation, which was wonderful too because some of the people they hired didn't have university degrees, so they could not qualify for something like Queen’s. So it was a very exciting time.

Kelly Johnson (KJ) : Just out of curiosity, because we hear a lot about the Queen's program, but how many students how many classmates would you say there were at the time?

JL: There were 12 in the Artifact stream and 12 in the Fine Arts stream and we all took the same classes, we all did separate lab work, but we all had the same core classes that we took and we became a very close bunch. I made really good friends, friends for life during that the those years.

NNM: Did you have a sense of kind of you and your classmates of sort of forging new ground?

JL:  It's hard to say when you're looking at students that way because a lot of the students were trying to forge their own ground, just trying to get through the program. I should also mention that CCI also had developed a training program, this was separate from Queens. And in fact I had applied for the CCI program when it first started and they were hiring people who had university qualifications, the same kind of qualifications you would need to get into grad school and they were hiring two people in each conservation specialty that they had identified. Each year and they were being paid on a government salary level, as technicians with all the benefits and everything and they were being trained on the job they here at CCI, with the object being that they would eventually go out and be able to work in museums across Canada. So there was that other part and that was part of the early history of CCI, which is really important and morphs into what CCI eventually became. I'm sure you'll be interviewing many of the interns from that period because many of them are now CCI retirees.

KJ: When you started, you explained that you were hired as a technician, once you completed your degree at Queen's is that when you became a conservator?

JL: No, actually that's just one step, you still have to go through a few years of applying your knowledge. One of the parts of the Queen's program are the internships, right, so during the internships you actually get a chance to start to apply your knowledge when you're working under another qualified conservator and that for me was a pretty exciting time to learn that I could make decisions based on what I was learning at Queen's, that you can actually make, start to make, decisions and informed decisions, about treatments and why they go wrong, or why they go right you know. That's very exciting, so when you graduate from an academic program, you just continue along that and you get more and more responsibility, until, you know, you finally become a qualified conservator where you can make these decisions and guide other students. So yeah, it's a lifelong learning experience. I don't think you ever stop learning when you become a conservator. It's kind of a sometimes it's a downhill slope, you make mistakes, okay I always thought that it's expensive to train somebody because you don't really, really learn until you make a mistake. And when you make a mistake, or something goes wrong, that you never forget it. But I always told my interns and the students that I've worked with, I said, "You know, if you screw up, if something goes wrong, it's not the end of the world, as long as you know why it screwed up and if you can correct it, or fix it, that's great but as long as you know and you can avoid it, and then be brutally honest in your documentation. Because you have to confess to all your sins in the documentation so it's there forever.

KJ: At the same time, I'm sure you discover through those mistakes too?

JL: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, one of the worst ones that I was an intern, I was working on an archaeology site in Italy, an early Etruscan site and it was my second year there and the director trusted me perfectly. I had done a lot of work with ceramics. That was my initial work in conservation, was with ceramics and the site had a lot of ceramics. We were working on this one plate that had come out of a tomb and it was very fragile and part of it had been excavated in previous years and part of it was still in the soil and it needed to be consolidated with an adhesive and so dopey me, I said yes, we just put these sherds in the solution of acetone and adhesive and yeah, half an hour later, there was this pile of mud in the bottom of the container. And the archaeologist looked at me and said, "Judy what happened?" and I looked at the mud, but yeah, I was able to understand why that happened and I've never forgotten that.

NNM:  So it just dissolved or…?

JL:  Yeah, it's a simple lesson which I tell students now and what which Henry Hodges told us, and it didn't twig on me at the time. It's water, plus underfired pottery, equals mud, okay? Now, I wasn't thinking acetone as a polar solvent like water. I mean, you put underfired crumbly pottery into acetone, even if there is a polymer in there, like an acrylic polymer to hold a thing together, it's still going to dissolve. It will turn into mud. Yes, sticky mud, sticky mud.

NNM:  What were the reactions of the people around you?

JL:  Sympathetic, very sympathetic, and I think that's part of conservation, you know, it's part of the growing and learning thing. And when things go right, you feel really, really, really good. When you come up with an idea and you use it, then you know, you've thought it through and you think it should work and you work on little test pieces to make sure it's going to work and then you do it to the real thing and it does work and you feel great.

KJ: Can you tell us a little bit about maybe a project that you worked on that stands out to you?

JL: Yeah, well there's one that I use when I'm giving a lecture at the University of Ottawa for their first year archaeology class and it's an example from a site in Labrador which was a really important site in my career and in Canadian archaeology. That's the Basque Whaling Station at Red Bay and Labrador. It was first identified as a Basque Whaling Station by Dr. Jim Tuck from Memorial University and some of his colleagues, who did a survey of the Red Bay Harbor. Historians knew about this whaling industry, but nobody had ever pinpointed the site and Parks Canada, under the direction of Robert Grenier, discovered Basque whaling ships sunk in the harbor, which fit the description of these legal documents that describe the sinking of the San Juan in 1565. So we had the two crews, Memorial University working on land sites, on the land excavating whaling stations and Parks Canada working on the underwater site, looking at a 16th century shipwreck This has never been done in Canada, this was at one of the earliest European sites to be excavated in Canada. L'Anse aux Meadows was the earliest, this was from the 1500s you know, we're talking good stuff, and brand-new information. We had many, many interesting projects from Red Bay. We did discover a cemetery in 1981 and excavated it over a period of about three or four years and one of the features we found in the cemetery was a complete set of clothing. We actually found a couple of complete sets of clothing, but the first one we found was really unusual, it was a real problem. The cemetery itself was in a very rocky, sandy, part of the site. Most of the site was rocky and sandy parts of it were a peat bog, parts were well drained. The preservation in the cemetery of the human remains was very sketchy. Some remains were well-preserved, where shell had washed over them, some were basically mud men. Bones had disintegrated to the consistency of mud. In this one particular grave, it was one individual, laid down on bedrock in a little shallow trough in bedrock and when he was buried, he had been wearing clothing. We didn't find clothing on many of the burials, we did find evidence of clothing on some burials, but this was a complete set of clothing. I mean. literally, but it was very, very, degraded and in the ground you could tell the position of the person, how he'd been laid out, with his hands crossed over his waist, because he had a shirt on and he had pantaloons on. But this was really degraded and we had to figure out how to get it out of the ground without wrecking it, because you couldn't just lift it up. One alternative was to freeze it but you couldn't, because you'd freeze it to the rock right? So, I borrowed a technique that fine arts conservators use and I created a facing cloth made out of gauze and some adhesive that I could prepare the cloth in the lab, let the adhesive dry in the lab and then reactivate it in the field with acetone to soften adhesive and have it form a very gentle, what we call a nap bond to the textile and the textile was wet, I have to mention, all of this stuff is wet. So, when the facing dried in the field, we were able to lift the entire thing out and put it on a support and get it back to the lab, then CCI, subsequently CCI, where we were able to do fiber ID and send samples off to a specialist in the UK to do dye identification. We also involved a specialist in costume pattern making, whose specialty was historic costumes. Her name is Elise Dubuc, but we of course involved our textile conservators and I'm not a textile conservator and archaeological textiles are not my specialty either, so I turned this over to Martha Segal and other colleagues in the archaeology lab. And we were able to get all the information about the type of wool that was used, the dyes on both sets. We discovered traces of stockings in the first set of clothing that we had excavated. The second set of clothing we found that person had a hat on and he had shoes and stockings as well and he was wearing a jacket and a shirt. His clothing wasn't dyed, it was all woven from a wool of natural fibers and the first set of clothing, the person had been wearing a red shirt and dark blue pantaloons, very cleverly made, perfect for the environment. Anyway this was all interesting stuff, we're getting all this information together and Jim Tuck at the time was always thinking ahead towards presenting this to the public. You have to present your results to the public. It has to mean something to somebody, right, and the best way to do this is to make reproductions in some cases and for the textiles, definitely reproductions, so through Elise's contact, she managed to find a woman who would spin the fibers and weave the textile and create reproductions from Elise's patterns, so this was done and it was amazing for me to see this stuff coming from the ground, in almost unrecognizable condition and in very poor condition and be able to bring it to a stable object which can be put on display, the original textiles are on display, or they were I think they still might be on display in Red Bay and then have reproductions made. When I first saw the reproductions, I was really taken aback because it really hits you visually. When you're a conservator, you get to know objects intimately, but when you can actually see the results of your work producing something like that, which anybody, coming in to look at these pieces will see themselves. That's what makes it really special. Then you know it's just to me, a textbook case of conservation and the other thing that was really good in terms of conservation, is we didn't use any chemicals on these fibers. The person with a red and blue shirt or the red shirt and blue pants, the fibers were in such poor condition, we couldn't separate them and whatever was left of this individual, is still in the folds, in between the layers of those textiles. So literally if anybody wants to go back and do more analysis of that individual, they can. Back then, we didn't have DNA analysis, now we do and there are a lot of other forensic applications which could be applied. I mean we could look at even entomology, looking at the type of insects; we could identify maybe time of year, stuff like that. Look for lice, because everything in there and hair was preserved, so any kind of hair or skin would might be preserved in those layers. Anyway, we didn't mess anything up for future analysis, I'm very proud of that project.

KJ: Yeah, that’s really… wow. You mentioned something just a couple of seconds ago or a couple of minutes ago, that this to you is a textbook case of conservation, could you elaborate on that, what do you mean by that?

JL: I mean we did what we call minimal intervention. When you're conserving an object, you want to preserve what is there and an archeological material, it's often in a very altered state, which can be challenging, because often to preserve it you have to add something to it like a consolidant or some other chemical to bring it from the as found condition to dry and able to sit in the museum environment. We try to limit what we do, even washing an artifact changes it. But you do have to take certain amount of dirt off, so you can identify it. When we're using any kind of adhesives or consolidants, we have to be aware of what they are chemically, how they may change chemically over time, even though we use the most stable things we know of it when we're applying these, you know. Things do change and we have to be aware of what factors might be involved in getting rid of this material, if for some reason that had to be taken off. And in reality, you can't undo something, once you've done it, it's a done deal. You know, you break your arm, it's broken, right. You break a piece of pottery, it's broken. You can stick it together but there's always going to be glue on it, so it's our aim to try not to add chemicals where it's not necessary. We try to create supports for artifacts so that if they're fragile they can support their own weight without having anything added internally into them, so that they can stand on their own. And in the case of the textiles, we created supports for both sets of textiles so they could be examined and turned over without damaging the fibers. And again, any analysis that is done should go towards guiding the treatment or providing information which will go with that object, so that future conservators, or custodians will be able to understand what happens if there are changes to that object. And the textbook treatment again is that other people can appreciate it. Because it's fine to work in isolation, but you can't really do that. Somebody has to benefit from your actions and that's why we're preserving this stuff, right. To hand it over to the public and make it understandable to them.

KJ: In 1988 I think it was, you wrote an article, "Thoughts on the role of the archaeological conservator." I found the article really interesting. In here you explain, I would say, the perspective of the conservator working on the field and whatnot. For somebody who doesn't have experience in this, can you tell us what the difference is between the role of the archaeologist versus the conservator?

JL: Okay, that's a good one. When I wrote that article and when I was working in the 80s, most of the archaeology being done at the time was research driven. In other words, by research question. Archeologists are excavating to find out more information about a certain culture, a certain time period. The case of Red Bay, that's an example. It was the 16th century Basques. A conservator, what you are doing, you were working with the archaeologists. You have to understand what they're trying to get out of this site. Why are they excavating it in the first place, what do they expect to find, how can we prepare for what they're going to find. I found my role in a site was really just mitigating a whole process of archaeology. Making sure it went through smoothly, that we weren't impeding the excavation, we're enhancing the excavation and working with the students so they know what to do in the field when they start finding stuff and working with a registrar to make sure that things are getting registered in a smooth process. So yeah and packing, oh my god, packing.

If you're working in a foreign country, it gets slightly more complicated because you can't bring stuff back. So working on the site is one of the bonuses, but to me it's the most challenging and the most exciting part of archaeology.

NNM: Is some of that a negotiation, because when you were using words like mitigating and make sure you're not impeding, there's a negotiation to be made with the archaeologists or with the people working on the site?

JL: Yeah, sometimes the conservator has more input into what actually comes into the conservation lab then others. Sometimes the archaeologist makes that decision because there is so much stuff and they want the conservator to concentrate just on stuff that can be done, has to be done, in the field, because there is no CCI to send it to. It has to be done in the field, and that's fine, because again, it's in their vested interest to make sure that the right decisions are being made and then as a conservator, you're always there to say yeah this is a good idea or that's not a good idea. But I never found a problem in actually, you know, saying we have to work on that, you know, you shouldn't be throwing that away, because most of the time it's pretty obvious. I was working on a site in Jordan,

where, oh we were getting, I mean literally, bits of fresco that had fallen from a wall, in all four walls, in this small room, which had been destroyed by fire and or an earthquake, sometime in the mid eighth-century. And I'll tell you, that fresco was in rotten shape and there were thousands, literally thousands and thousands and thousands of bits of it. But yeah at the time, we were doing our very, very, best to save as much as we could. But eventually it came down to only pulling the diagnostics you know looking at everything and taking the diagnostics. And the same thing with some other classes of material you get from a site like that. We were getting so many thousands of pieces of stuff. I mean what do you do, right. I mean seriously, you have to make decisions because otherwise you can't see the forest for the trees. You know, you keep all of these meaningless little things and you miss out on getting a really good, clear picture of what's going on. So it is a case of working with the archaeologists and finally saying, you know you're right, this is stupid. There is a limit. You can only do it so much. 

NNM: When you say diagnostics, you mean the pieces that need more work or just identifying what needs to be done?

JL: Pieces that actually tell you more about the site or that can give you more concrete information about the site or could actually be important in the long term. Now in archaeology, a whole collection of stuff is diagnostic. For instance, at Red Bay we got thousands and thousands and thousands of nails. Literally thousands of wrought iron nails and we saved every single one of those nails. Now, not every single one of those nails went through a specialized conservation treatment, but everything, every piece of metal from that site was x-rayed. It was x-rayed in the field. And we have a visual record of these thousands of nails, along with their catalog numbers, that exist somewhere, I think probably at Memorial University now. The nails may or may not still be intact and on some sites, such as another site in Newfoundland Ferryland, which produces huge quantities of iron, a lot of the stuff is reburied. You record what was found, the stuff is excavated, it's registered, it's recorded. We've got this stuff, we know we can't learn more from it right now, we'll rebury it. There are thousands and thousands of nails. Nobody's going to look at each individual nail. Never. And they don't take up much room in storage, which is a good thing, but we do have the picture, right. So it varies from site to site, circumstance to circumstance. You get thousands and thousands of bricks for instance, or thousands of pieces of window glass from a historic building. What do you do, well you can weigh them. You know window glass, you can weigh the window glass and try to come up with a idea of how much window you're actually talking about. You don't have to save every little sherd to stick it back together again. You can scrap the bunch, you know, weigh them, and yeah, you save some. Save some, because, you know, somebody might want to analyze them in the future for the chemistry, you know, what they are. Save interesting bits. You might find bits with molding on them, you might find, you know, bits of stained glass, you might find bits of leading. You know, save interesting bits, save pieces, which are going to say, "This is an example of what we found from this area". But start to develop an idea of what was going on, maybe what was being held together by those nails, the color of the nails,  if they are red, oh they were burned.

You know, stuff like that. You learn. But yeah, you have to be pretty pragmatic and that is actually, in looking at the evolution of conservation, archaeological conservation, over the years. The biggest problem in archaeological conservation I would say, the way it's evolved, for archaeologists as well, is how to handle the collections, because they have grown enormously, enormously. And that's an understatement, to the point where facilities cannot provide curatorial services for archaeological collections. It's a huge problem in archaeology and a lot of archaeology being done now is now being done as part of the environmental assessment process. Whenever any kind of building and development has to take place, archaeology is part of the environmental assessment, which means excavation is being done. And where are those materials, who is responsible for those materials, it's a big issue. Conservation still is an important part of that, to help people make decisions and make sure that these collections get saved, or representative portions of them are saved.

NNM: To return to the object that we were discussing earlier, this was a fragile textile, wasn’t it?

JL: You know, like I said, I'm not a textile conservator and seriously not a textile conservator, but with something like that, it's you know, bringing in all the people who actually do the work and they actually guide the whole thing. But that's one of the beauties of working here. I think we're going to get on to that too is one of the beauties of working at CCI, was to have access to so many, so many specialists within this building. And within that community of specialists within this building, they too have their networks. They've got this huge network of people. So when somebody comes to a conservator at CCI, you know what the question, they're not getting that one person, they're getting that one person’s network all built in, which is an amazing thing. And so when I was working here that's what I could provide to our clients, that's very important.

KJ: You spoke about the experience working on the field in Jordan. Can you tell us how that happens, how do you receive a request to go work on a project in a different country and how did how did that all kind of come about?

JL: Well that was really interesting. I was Chief of the Archaeology and Textiles Division at the time and we got a letter that was sent and it was from at the project director John Oleson from the University of Victoria and he needed a conservator. He had been working on a site in southern Jordan. They had discovered this fresco, some colored plaster fresco fragments and he said, "We really need a conservator, could you recommend someone?" and I thought maybe I'll look on a map and see where this place is. I'm busy, I've got this you know administrative job right now, whatever. So I did send it off to a couple of my archaeological colleagues and anyway I found out where it was, I thought oh my gosh, it's in Lawrence of Arabia country. And that was the childhood dream, was to go to see Lawrence of Arabia country. I couldn't believe there was a place that beautiful in the world, but anyway, I contacted the archaeologist and I said, “You know, if you're interested, I can get leave for one summer field season". Because at the time, we had been getting requests from the Middle East and there was interest within the management to find out if there was anything in the Middle East that would particularly be of value for CCI to be involved in. This particular project was heavily funded by SSHRC the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, as well as private funding from private foundations in the US. So anyway, I wrote to him and I said, "I can't promise more than one season." But I did get permission to go and well gosh, that was 1993, I think and I managed to keep going back for the next...until 2005 I think was my last field season there.

KJ: Oh! Wow. Every year?

JL: Not every single year, there were study seasons. You'd work usually for a couple of seasons, then have a study season and I went back for one or two study seasons during that time as well as the excavation seasons. It was a very big project, really interesting project. We found in that room full of frescoes, the first year I was there in ‘93, the very end of the field season, the very end. This always happens, right last day of field season. The project archaeologist who was in charge of that particular part of the site, she was a PhD student from Harvard and we were right down to the original plaster floor of the room and there was this black material that she found and she had pulled it out of the ground and brought it to me and said it was carved and it what is it and it I didn't know. It turned out to be ivory. I brought a sample back to CCI. It wasn't acting like ivory. It wasn't cracking, it wasn't splitting, it wasn't disintegrating like ivory should. And you know, in the blazing sun and 40 degree temperature, you know, it should have fallen apart. It didn't and it was ivory, and over the next six field seasons, that room was more or less, not totally excavated, but almost and we found thousands of fragments of carved, burned, ivory plaques dating to the mid-8th century and they were human figures. Usually pairs, mirror images of people. That particular ivory collection is, I think, at the National Museum of Jordan now. A couple of panels were put on display at the Met a few years ago for the exhibit of early Islamic art. NNM: So what was that room?

JL: That room was probably the reception room in the 'cazor' or a manor house of the head of the Abbasid family. So this was their family home and for Islamic history it's a very important site.

NNM: What's it like when you bring a new exciting object into CCI and then you get to look at it with your colleagues, is there kind of a buzz around it?

JL: Yes, oh yeah we've had that buzz several times. That's another part about working here. There was an artifact, ok, this goes back to Newfoundland, from Ferryland in the mid-1980s. Jim Tuck started to look at the 17th century English colony at Ferryland. He was in town, 1985, he'd found this peculiar, lumpy object. It was just about 12 centimeters long and it was kind of cross-shaped, but it was iron. You could tell it was iron somewhere and there. It was covered with gravel and corrosion and everything. He brought this object into CCI, along with one of his colleagues and he brought it to me and we took a look at it under the microscope and I started poking at it and piece of corrosion fell off. Oops, what's that, something yellow. Oh look at that, how interesting and so poked around a little more. You're allowed to do this carefully, you know, you have got to start somewhere, right? Yeah, and there is another piece, of a different color yellow,  I'm going, "What?" Because this is iron. So while these two archaeologists were standing there, I just called the analytical research lab and said, "Could somebody take a look at this?" And within literally half an hour, with a very short period of time, we got the results back. This is gold and that other one is brass. Oh! And suddenly the whole complexion of this object changes. You're not just looking at another lumpy, funny blob of iron, you're looking at something. Oh my god, what is this thing now? I'll tell you, the colleague who Jim brought with him was a good old-fashioned archaeologist who's a little skeptical about what good conservation could really do, you know? Really do? And he was pretty impressed.

KJ: Because that just happened, it wasn't planned, it wasn't in the books, as a project that you would be working on I'm assuming?

JL: No, this was one of these things. We had other things like that that came in the lab. There was one an object from the Arctic that came in. Bob Janes, who was the main archaeologist for the Territories at the time in the Arctic. This was before Nunavut, he brought in a copper canister. The geological survey crew had found it on one of the arctic islands, in a stolen cairn. And it had a broad arrow carved in the side which indicates it's British, British Broad Arrow. Anyway, everybody's interested in this and so everybody gathers around, conservators from the ethno lab and a couple of scientists came down to look at this and you know it's always fun to see new things coming in. And something is inside it, here, shake, shake. Anyway after staring at this thing and how do we open it to find out what's in it? It was Bob Barclay actually, who was an objects conservator at the time, said take a hacksaw to it. So we let Bob do it. So Bob opened it, very carefully along the solder line, and this thing fell out, was wet, wet, green thing, piece of something. It was wet and it was slimy and it was I don’t know about 15 centimeters by about 10 centimeters. Anyway, it was a document! So we got Greg Young down, by this time I don't know how many scientists and conservators are hovering around this thing and the archaeologist is standing there, thinking, oh my god it's a document. And it was within the first while that we were all looking at this thing, it was possible to identify a signature, W.E. Parry, P-A-R-R-Y, who was one of the first arctic explorers to go looking for the Northwest Passage after Frobisher. Frobisher was much earlier, this was in the 1800s. 1819, 1820 he went through looking for the Northwest Passage and actually made it through, but he didn't know he made it through. He made it to Melville Island and turned around came back. If he had kept going he would have wound up in China. But he didn't, he was a very careful explorer. But he had left this thing, in a copper cylinder, in a rock cairn, on the coast of Prince Regent Inlet. He was stuck there by ice, he left this, he'd been instructed by the Admiralty to leave messages whenever he hit land in case Franklin was in the area. Now Franklin was exploring on land at the time, in the Northwest Territories and was in the process of getting lost and losing his men. This was before the big one. Franklin had done land exploration before he came across on the Erebus and Terror, but this is his colleague and buddy, William Edward Parry who had left this thing, as instructed by the British Admiralty and it took us a while to get the analysis done. Of course, we had the analysis done by Greg Young. We discovered that there was in fact a piece of untanned skin, we found out it had calcium carbonate in it, we found out the surface was more degraded than the rest of the skin because Greg Young was able to apply a technique he had just developed for examining objects made of collagen—skin, to determine the condition of the skin and that was brand new. This was something developed at CCI by CCI staff, by Greg Young and we were ultimately able to dry it on a suction cold table. Treat it like a piece of paper, only it was a piece of very badly degraded, untanned skin. There were traces of the writing on it and the only way we could date it was we could see the names of his two ships, Hecla and Griper. We could see his signature, so all these things were coming together. But yeah, it started with this again, the "oh wow" moment and all these people standing around going what is it, what is it?

KJ: We talked about you being at Parks. At what point did you come to CCI and what brought you to CCI?

Judy Logan: Okay well, actually, basically I finished at Queens and I was on a high. I was really, really thrilled about conservation. You know the previous summer had been at Red Bay with Parks Canada and I had seen what CCI was doing with Memorial University and I knew of CCI of course. I mean you know we all knew each other played hockey together heaven helps but back in those days so I thought okay no harm trying I mean why not two exciting things happen the first day I was at work first of all Charles said to me well nobody else really is keen on going to Red Bay this summer so it's all yours if you want it I thought giving me the best archaeology site in Canada to look after you kidding and the second one was oh yeah and we have a metal workshop coming up and with Henry Hodges that you'd be willing to do it with him and oh my god and I have to do a workshop with my professor. But, anyway that was my introduction to CCI and I thought that's pretty exciting stuff. Yeah, right decision when you're young when you're coming fresh out of school and you've got ideas and you know you don't have preconceived notions about what you're walking into that's when you get really, really good work and a really good dynamic going. You know I hate to say it but I yeah I hope when everybody's finished retiring that the new crowd is really as its great and as happy as we were but we all grew up together I mean we were all about the same age like I mentioned hockey that's well let's just say at one point parks and CC I used to have hockey games together other games baseball and stuff and yeah. But, things change but we all work together.

KJ: We've talked about a few things I feel like there's still so much that we could cover but is there any word of advice that you have for new emerging conservators?

JL: Well one thing that I should have done much better when I was working I should have kept more detailed personal notes. When you're making notes never give up your pen in your pencil keep your notes keep your notebooks keep all your diaries I found them invaluable and often kick myself for thinking I didn't tie that down because over the years you'll be building up a network of colleagues and with any luck your reputation will spread in a good way and people will be asking you for advice. Artifacts you've treated will come back to you to haunt you maybe your happy stories and it's amazing what all of this stuff your personal stuff that you were learning as you go along how valuable that is when you want to dig back in your memory and find out what did happen because you've got your documentation but your scientific documentation you've got all of that but there's the other stuff that only you know. Try to capture that because that's invaluable and again: never stop learning and have fun you know and keep your contacts meet people go to conferences and if you can afford it and I go to conferences and just try to maintain your professional contacts. I like talking about conservation.

[Music: “Here’s Where Things Get Interesting” by Lee Rosevere from the album “Music for Podcasts 6.” Style: Electronic Minimalism]

NNM: Thank you to Judy Logan and 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.

Who would you like us to interview as a part of this podcast? Find us on Facebook at Canadian Conservation Institute and let us know.

Next time on the podcast…

Lyn Elliot Sherwood: He headed the potato museum in Prince Edward Island. He said, “We have a picture of Marilyn Monroe in a potato sack do you think that would be something that people would like to on the Internet?” And I said, “Yes, I think they would like to see that very much.”

Museums around the world display artifacts excavated by archaeologists. But before they can be displayed, the artifacts must be treated and preserved. That’s where someone like Judy Logan comes in. She was an archaeological conservator at CCI from 1981 to 2006. She was also one of the first graduates of the Queen’s University Master of Art Conservation program. Join your hosts, Kelly Johnson and Nathalie Nadeau Mijal, as they ask Judy about working as a conservator at CCI and around the world.

Brian Arthur: Director of CCI, 1976–1980

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Transcript of episode “Brian Arthur: director of CCI, 1976–1980”

Transcript of episode “Brian Arthur: Director of CCI, 1976–1980”

Episode length: 00:43:31

[Music: “We Don’t Know How it Ends” by Lee Rosevere from the album “Music for Podcasts 6.” Style: Electronic Minimalism]

Brian Arthur (BA): In three years, you are to make the CCI the most important conservation institute in the world. If you can't do that, say now because if you don't do that will put you in a rowing boat with one oar and push you back to England.

Nathalie Nadeau Mijal (NNM): I'm Nathalie Nadeau Mijal and this is CCI and CHIN: In Our Words.

NNM: Today's episode is truly special. Kelly Johnson and I interviewed Brian Arthur. He was the second Director General (DG) of the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) from 1976 to 1980. The first DG, Nathan Stolow passed away in 2014, so in many ways Brian Arthur is the only person who can give us insight into the very early years of CCI. When Brian Arthur was hired, the Institute had only existed for about three years and was experiencing some significant early challenges. It could be said that he rescued the organization, hiring new staff, officially opening the new headquarters on Innes Road and building the national and international reputation of CCI. He is also the one we have to thank for what was arguably CCI's most popular program ever, the mobile labs. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, CCI experts boarded retrofitted vans that were basically mini laboratories and traveled the nation, offering conservation services to regional museums. It’s likely that there will be a full episode of the podcast devoted to this topic in the future. Among his many other achievements, Brian Arthur became a world expert in the conservation of pottery or as he calls it, "sticking pots together". You'll hear from his accent that he is originally from England, so our first question is why did Brian Arthur come to Canada?

BA: In the 70s, I was employed as chief conservation officer with the Oxford City & County Museum, and my director one day said to me, "Did you see that position advertised with the National Historic Site Service in Canada?" And I said no, "were you encouraging me to go?" and she said, "I think you ought to apply for it, yes”. So I applied for it and I had a telephone call from the Public Service Commission, I think it was, saying, "Do you want to accept this position with National Historic Sites, and would you like to come to Canada?" and I said yes that is why I applied, and they said, "Well that's fine, we can set out to move you and your family here." So they arranged and I flew over and it was the terrible winter of 1970 I think. We appeared in Ottawa and that’s how I came to Canada.

I should say it was a position not just to set up conservation laboratories in Ottawa, but regional ones, but they offered me the job because they knew I had some experience of a lot of Saxon and archaeological sites and some Viking sites, and what they wanted me to do was confirm that the site in Newfoundland was truly a Viking site, which there was a lot of argument and debate about, as you can imagine. So I spent the first year or two in Newfoundland, proving I hope, that it was a National Historic Site and of course a World Heritage Site now.

Kelly Johnson (KJ): And how long did you work there?

BA: I was up and down because I was trying to set up laboratories up and down to Newfoundland over two or three years and eventually we were able to hire the Viking archaeologist and he came and lived and worked for the federal government.

NNM: Hmm… What did you make of L' Anse aux Meadows when you first got there?

BA: I thought it was the most beautiful place on the earth, and I encourage all the Canadians I meet to go there. My friend, Charles Hett who’s seen more of the world I suspect than I have, used to roll up his trousers and get a forked stick - he'd make a stick with fork and wade out in to the bay and there were lots of little flatfish: plaice, dabs and flounders-- so big-- and he used to fill the buckets up with them and we would have them for supper. It is a very romantic place.

So, I come back. I'm very happy with Historic Sites. I still think it's the best department to work for in Canada because everybody from the Minister down is interested in the environment, in the animals or something. They’re all professionals in that way so they understand about conservation of course.

So I was very happy and then one morning, I had a telephone call at 2:30 in the morning, and a lady said, “This is Jennifer McQueen is that Brian Arthur?” and I said “yes”, she said, “you met me at a party about six weeks ago and you talked about how sad you were about what had happened to CCI which had been set up and falling into disrepair.”

And we talked briefly about the Canadian Conservation Institute, CCI, and the trouble she was having running it and that sort of thing. And I knew they’d fired the director. So she said to me at 2:30 in the morning, “Would you like to be the next director of the CCI?” And I said, “Well I would certainly think about it. But I want you to know I am very happy where I am with Historic Sites,” and she said, “Could you come for an interview in the morning?” So I went to this office. It was a very small office, and Bernard Ostry, who was then the Secretary General of the museums corporation, was sat in the window sill, and Jennifer and I sat at a small table and we talked for 5-10 minutes and I noticed Bernard wasn't asking any questions and so I thought I ought to talk a bit longer. It's very easy for me to talk, I suppose. And after about five minutes, I saw Jennifer going like this, so I stopped.

And Bernard said thank you very much for coming and he left and Jennifer said, "Why did you go on talking so much?" I said, “Because he hadn't asked any questions.” And she said, "Didn't I make it clear? We're offering you the job." And I said, “Well that's nice to know, but you understand I'm very happy where I am, and Historic Sites is big regional organization now for conservation and I would have to give three months’ notice, I think.” And she said, "It's not necessary. I talked with your Deputy last night, and you can start tomorrow." And she said, “Make sure your passport's up to date and what not, because we're flying to Venice,” I think it was; there was a big ICOM conference going on there, and I was chairing half of it.

The previous Director General of CCI was Nathan Stolow. He'd gone, but he'd set up interviews with conservators in Europe, different towns. Jennifer wanted that we would go and hold those interviews while this conference was going on. We went with Joe Dorning, who at that time did all the staffing for science programs in the government and certainly most of them for CCI, for a long while. So to make it legal and we could hire people on the spot, he was with the Public Service Commission. So, we went off and hired people and it was kind of difficult, because I hadn't set foot in the CCI and I was hiring staff. Luckily, I'd kept up to track with what the CCI was supposed to do.

So, when we came back from Venice, I turned up at the CCI and it had been run in the absence of a DG by a group of seven conservators and scientists, I think they were sort of split half-and-half and they were called the Silver Seven. They were referred to as such within the Institute and I came up into my office, which was up here somewhere and in the office, they had set up an old-fashioned toilet, you know with the cistern and a chain and a copy of Sears catalog. And the Silver Seven said, "We don't want you interfering too much so we fixed a toilet in your office with Sears catalog to entertain you." So, [laughter] I said, " Oh yes, I said well, perhaps I ought to tell you how I'm going to proceed as I'm now director here." I said, "I should be very grateful for help and advice from you as a group and individually, but I have to tell you, having a group like the Silver Seven advising me is not how I intend to direct the operation."

I very rapidly discovered there was considerable antagonism between the scientists and the conservators here. I mean, they didn't speak to each other, life was made difficult for each of them. It was all very difficult when I came in this group still thinking they were going to control the place and I clearly wasn’t going to allow that. So I explained to them I was quite prepared to, once a week, once a month, once a week to start with, having meetings with the chiefs of the different departments and they could tell me what they wanted and I would tell them what I thought the direction should be.

I was prepared to do that and I was quite prepared to have meetings once a month with all the staff if that was so wished. So, we moved on with that. The antagonism was still with there.

NNM: Why? Why did the scientists and the conservators have such a difficult relationship?

BA: The conservators thought they should be telling the scientists what areas of their work they needed help with. The scientists and some were quite difficult personalities; thought conservators really didn't know anything. They didn't know any science, chemistry, physics, anything. And it was the duty of the scientists to sort of give them advice and steer them on the right course. So neither side cared for the other, it was made worse I think by this building. At that time, all the conservators were downstairs and there was this walkway, I presume it's still there, at the top where the scientists used to go and stand out in the mornings and watch the fine art people restoring paintings. Then a coffee break when they were all together tell them, "You did that wrong". The conservators felt they were being overlooked, but eventually we got over that.

The other major problem when I came was that, I can't remember the exact number, I think there was about eight young people, students, who'd been hired with the promise that they would be taught conservation and given some sort of degree or diploma. That was Nathan's idea, Nathan Stolow, a previous director. And that, you know, so many hours a week would be spent with the appropriate scientists and professors and so much time, bench time. The problem with that was that education was part of the provinces’ political sphere and the feds couldn't set up a course like that. Especially as we were partially funding the conservation course at Queen’s, which had just started. So one of my first, very sad duties, was to explain to these young people; well we are going to do the best with you we can as trainees and I personally, if you want to go out and do theory somewhere else in the world, we will try and fund that.

And in fact, I think we sent two of the people to the Istituto Centrale in Rome, which is the Rome Institute, but lots of them, five or six mainly ladies, were very disgruntled about it. Some went to the regional laboratories to work, and some people left all together. So that was a very difficult start for the Institute. There was a lot of major theft of equipment going on. When I came everybody was worried, you know. There was research going on that if there were power blackouts we couldn't cope, so there were two large generators we could fire up downstairs. One had gone missing and then another went missing, but I guess people did not realize with the corps of commissionaires, we'd got contacts on all the doors and if people stayed at night, you could trace them round on the log sheet and we could tell he had gone into the storage room, gone out the back.

So I had to fire, I don't know, quite a lot of people when I first came. There was another gentleman who was a fine art conservator who had been working with some art galleries in the prairies and I guess you understand that there are lots of really good copies of important paintings. I mean lots of copies that people are still arguing about. What this guy was doing was forging signatures for these galleries and he worked for me.

KJ: Here? Well, at the time, at CCI?

BA: Yes he was a fine art conservator. I had call from the RCMP, an Inspector came and he said, "You know we've been working on this case, not here, but we've tracked it down, and it's one of your guys who's putting signatures on and we want you to talk to him and we'll set up the recording stuff."

NNM: So you had to wear a wire to catch him?

BA: Yes and the RCMP inspector was in what used to be the coffee room on my office and I explained to this guy that I had no absolute proof, but I suspected he was doing this. The staff fine art conservators still know him; I can tell you his name, as Mr. Brillo. The conservators, fine art conservators, always said that he cleaned his paintings with a brillo pad. [Laughter] So I suspected he was into other trouble as well and he came one day after I talked to him and I said, "Look are you going to admit you do this, or are the police just going to drag you out?" sort of thing and he came with the Queen's Counsel, which petrified me to death, with his own recording gear and sat there and said, “I'm listening to every word Mr. Arthur”. So, I said, “Well, you know I'm going to talk to my superiors and I would like the department's lawyer here as well. If you want to know my views personally off the record, I think we can prove this gentleman was forging these paintings. But if you want to argue about it I'd like a lawyer here for me and for the Institute.”

It was all handled quietly in the end by the government, I think. There was no big deal about it

He had to leave and so there was that, but the biggest problem were the students that were no longer students, or interns, they were sort of casual employees, so those were the early days.

KJ: And what happened with the first director, Nathan Stolow?

BA: He was jointly the Director of Conservation for the National Gallery, so it was a very difficult situation. And, there were lots of reasons the government didn't want to get into a full-blown scandal at that time with somebody who was still working for another institution. But anyway it all died away in the end and Nathan who sadly died last year, was really one of the world's great experts and he's the guy who a few years ago, about three years ago, designed the case for the American Papers of Independence, that great document. It's all now in the case, which Nathan designed, and sadly died a few months after. But he moved on in conservation and wrote eminent papers. But politically it was impossible for him to stay. If he hadn't gone, I couldn't have taken the job, and politics would have been a terrible problem.

So we had very happy relationship with Queen's University with Ian Hodkinson and went on funding that organization as part of the University and Ian has told me quite often, “We couldn't have run the course without the money.” The money was funneled through the Institute and what used to be the Heritage Information Network. We used to put money together, it was all quite different in those days. It would go to Ian and to Queen’s University of course and so in later years, of course lots of the people came back so we got peace and tranquility in the Institute finally.

We hired some people from Europe, some very eminent people.

KJ: How many people would you say came out of that trip that you took at the very beginning?

BA: I'm guessing now, over a three, four-year period, we hired about 10 people. Not all from Europe, I mean some from Africa, some eminent people from Africa. I remember this one guy from Africa, he had taken a trip across the Sahara, a one man trip. Jennifer said to him, why would you do that, how did you do it? He said, "But I had a bottle of Coca-Cola". And she said, "But surely one bottle of Coca-Cola wouldn't have seen you through the Sahara" and I remember him laughing. He came and he was very funny guy and he said, "No, you misunderstand man, I wasn't drinking it, I was banging myself on the head with it to keep myself awake". Those were the sort of interviews we had with Jennifer, of course she hired him on the spot. [Laughter]

NNM: And the reason that you were hiring all of these people from outside of Canada was because there was no? There were no...

BA: There were one or two conservators, mainly fine arts conservators, there were I think, almost no artifact conservators which was my concern, being an artifact conservator. So we've got to get these people in and meet my mandate. The only instructions I was given, I was to become chairman of ICOM Canada, this International Council of Museums. Jennifer said, "We know all about you and what you've done all round the world, we've checked, you are to become chairperson of the Canadian group of ICOM in one year. Bernard said, "And in three years you are to make the CCI the most important conservation institute in the world. If you can't do that say now, because if you don't do that, we'll put you in a rowing boat with one oar and push you back to England." [Laughter] Those were my instructions, which I hope I fulfilled. I became chairman in Canada and in fact, in two years, I became Chairman of the Advisory Council of ICOM, which is all the chairmen, chair-ladies as well, from around the world. I was their chairman in Paris and even though I left the Institute after four years, I will forever say good things about the Canadian government as I went to, what was then the new Museum of Man.

But I kept up very close liaison and many of my successors here became chairmen of the International Committee in Paris, Conservation Committee. But after that, my first concern then was, I'd met with Mr. Pelletier, who took over culture with the close attention of the Prime Minister then and he was the guy who said that the Federal Government should decentralize its cultural and heritage activities all across the country. It was paid for by people all across the country and it was bad enough that both, or three national museums at that time were in Ottawa, but for God's sake, let's make the Institute and all the other organizations we're setting up with the Museums Corporation, which was part of Mr. Pelletier's-- he had set up the Corporation, were to spread it all across the country. So, my concern then was, how do we do that? And he'd clearly explained I was to set up regional laboratories so that meant negotiating with curators, librarians, deputy ministers of culture, in the provinces who were all incredibly kind to me, as still somewhat of a newcomer, because we were giving things and giving a service and money, which is always acceptable in the provinces. But, they were concerned what control they would have over those services, because they understood they weren't paying for them, but it was their cultural property that would be going through. So, we set up advisory councils in Ontario, in the Prairies, in BC, in the Atlantic region and in Quebec, which is a whole separate problem.

Not all those positions got staff, the directorship for the Prairies, was never staffed, so we had an agreement with the provinces that we would have advisory councils, they were called, I still call them, committees. There would ideally be a librarian, a curator (could be fine art or archeology) and some important person in culture. So, we tried to get about four or five people on these committees. They weren't paid, their expenses were paid and my executive assistant then became the executive assistant for these committees. It was Janet Bridgeland first of all, they were allowed to write their minutes with Janet, which I couldn't veto. That was very important for the provinces and that those reports would go to the Secretary General of the Corporation afterwards. The Deputy, I got them to read, and I could object if I wanted to, but it became very important and very, very useful and I so wish it was still there, sadly, it isn't. It was important because quite often, the Institute will be asked to treat a painting, artifacts rare books and what-not and the committee, in one case, it was a rare book, a very rare book and we were going to treat it, you know, it is a very important book. Book folks here would love to get their hands on it and the curator, who was a fine arts person from the provincial gallery, said "But we've got three other copies in the province, Mr. Arthur" I said, "Oh my god, I didn't know that. I thought this was the one copy." And so, he said, "You're going to put aside two years of work by a paper conservator when we’ve got…?” No way. And so that was the advice they could give us, like you've been asked to do this painting, but we thought two other copies and the one, the galleries had contacted us directly in Ottawa, so it was terribly, terribly useful for the things we treated. Also as a great lobby politically, which I wasn't supposed to have anything to do with, of course. They were quite happy to spread the word and once a year, they met in Ottawa with the Deputy or the Secretary General of the Corporation at that time.

And, I think that's the thing on behalf of the Institute I miss most, because it kept Ottawa in touch with the provinces and the sort of artifacts they valued. I think after that with their encouragement, we decided to set up a mobile laboratory service and a big exhibition, which was all the ground floor at the Institute at that time called, "A Future for the Past" which upset the directors of the National Museums, because they thought the Institute had no business. I mean, we had queues outside to get in to see it.

NNM: I think that was the one and only exhibition that CCI held.

BA: Yes, it started my demise. Government people add me on the list for the chopping block.

NNM: Put you on a watch list?

BA: Yes, but it was fabulous. It was one of the best exhibitions; people came from all over the world to see it. Director of the Smithsonian came.

NNM: So what was in this exhibition?

BA: Well it was called "A Future for the Past" and there was a painting that was decaying and then we had the whole story and pictures and texts bilingually of what the conservators were going to do to it before and after. Because we used things from the past and we were able to beg some quite old paintings that people didn't mind being destroyed and the science department were putting thin sections and UV infrared photographs in there, so all that was in there, but I'm not a scientist. If I couldn't understand what they were doing, it didn't get put in, which upset my friends and science lab. But I said, you know these are people off the street, interested people who are coming to see it and they’ve got to understand it.

So we spent quite a lot of time and money. Jennifer McQueen, who was still my boss at that stage, was away in the Bahamas I think, and we ran out of money.

And I needed $45 000, I remember it clearly, and so I went down to Bernard Ostry and said could you come out and have coffee or lunch here next week? "So what are you trying to get from me?" he said. [laughter] I said, "Money". "Well you can tell me now and I’ll still come out next week". I said, "We need 45 000". "Well, why didn't you say that?" he said, and he called in his assistant, "How much money has Jennifer got left in her budget? And they said whatever it was, I was not privy to that it was quiet conversation, "Yes, you can have 45 000 from Jennifer’s budget."

Oh God! Anyway, we finished the exhibit and I think it was truly wonderful. Somewhere there’s some documentary film; I was never able to track it down where it was. And a lot of still photographs, but you could walk into that exhibit, knowing nothing about conservation. And when you came out the other side, you knew how a painting would be conserved, why it would be conserved, how much it would cost. We didn’t, you know—we did everything about it.

And as I say, it was called "A Future for the Past". So we moved on to mobile after Jennifer had hung, drawn and quartered me when she came back found half her budget had gone. Which her boss had given away. She said, "I know what happened, you went down and smooth-talked him into it." She said, "If I had been here, I wouldn't have given it you." I said, "Yes ma'am I know that". [Laughter] So anyway she wasn’t a lady with malice, I mean, I was told what would happen to me if I did it again, you know, I'd be sweeping streets downtown for the rest of my days.

So I then asked Lyn Ogden who was without a laboratory, to think about mobile labs. I'd seen some in my travels around the world, so we bought these vans and Lyn designed them as a laboratory: science one side, microscopes the other for sticking pot and things. And the idea was that the lab would go out via the Advisory Council. Terribly important. We weren't doing a ring around from Ottawa which everybody was currently concerned about in those days. And they would tell us which little museums it would really help. So, one senior conservator went out and with an intern. At the beginning, it was one of these poor young people who we tried to train and I think did train—they’re mainly heads of labs now. But anyway, it was a young person and a senior person, went out with the route chosen in conjunction with the Advisory Council for that district. And being quite a political person, I made sure that the Advisory Council told all the television stations, all the newspapers, everything, "The feds are coming to town!" You know, and “It's not costing anything and they are going to help us!” So for the first few trips, I went out was the senior conservator which was fun and we had wonderful press.

NNM: Where did you go on your first trip?

BA: I think we did the first trip to New Brunswick and what was incredibly nice and I come back to these advisory councils again, one of them if we were only two or three days in a place, the chairman of the Advisory Council, what's professional in their own right, you know, curator, librarian, would come out for three days and meet-and-greet and so I didn't have to talk all day on my own which I like doing. And so we had lots of the public and nearly all the local museums and galleries and librarians would send staff. And we treated a few objects, I stuck a few pots out there and it was costing us about half a million a year for those regional labs. But it was doing so much; I mean the federal government liked it, Bernard Ostry liked it, my boss liked it and then we’d got the new Assistant Secretary General and I had had one or two run-ins with him over end of the year reports and things he wrote about me and things I replied.

So I was in, I think New Brunswick, with the Assistant Secretary General of the Corporation, who I reported to and he said to me, "How much do the mobile laboratories cost?" I said in round figures half a million, and he said "I'm just telling you now and I told a television reporter yesterday, that I'm taking half a million out of your budget". So, I talked to the television people up there and they were very sad about it, because mobile labs had being a great hit there.

But I knew my days were numbered after some of my cryptic memos to my boss. So I was moved to National Historic Sites, where Bill Taylor was director and very old friend, and was sent out work with the archaeologist. I did some work in trying to thaw out archaeological sites in the North that never unfroze as it were and we did things like that. And, they still went on with my business with ICOM for meetings, a year in Paris, which isn't a hardship of course, and other trips around the world.

So, I was very sad to leave the Conservation Institute and the regional committees I think all supported me and protested it internationally. Secretary General of UNESCO complained to the government, but it didn't help me, “You fired him that's it?” But at the same time they dismantled the advisory councils. The Institute changed and the world has changed. And, it was much easier to raise money in those days, I could go and ask for 10 person years and half a million dollars and nobody killed me. I mean they might argue, "Well you can only have eight person."

But it was a whole different world and everybody, I think, believed in the Institute, from the Prime Minister down. He would ring us up sometimes, he'd come out and have coffee with staff, not with me, these people would come down to the staff room to have coffee. Which was wonderful, you know for the Conservatives I think, to know that the Prime Minister and ministers knew they were doing this.

That was the reputation the CCI had. I was in, I think it was Venice. It was a press thing for ICOM the International Committee, I was chairing the meeting there. They wanted me to talk to the press and they asked why did I think conservation was important, so off I went and they said "Well politically, what's happening with conservation around the world?" and I said, "Well it's had a big boost in the Eastern Europe, most of the communist countries have got major conservation laboratories as part of their mandate to preserve culture." and so I said "The farther left you go, the better it is for education for libraries, for art, the farther right you go politically, it's a bigger struggle."

So, I am explaining all this and I am quoted internationally in The Times and all the papers around the world and in Canada. And, I get a telephone call the next day. My secretary puts her hand over the phone and said, "You're in trouble." I said "Why?" She said, "It's the Prime Minister and he's angry!" And it was Joe Clark. He had been elected while I was away. "Enjoyed so much Mr. Arthur, you know it was on BBC international all the things you said?"

"No sir.” ”Well, it was carried live in Canada, over my breakfast" he said. And I said, "Yes, sir". He said, "So glad you're carrying the flag for us." He said, "It's absolutely wonderful we've got a Canadian doing that." And he was very nice and went on about how good it was. “A small matter, Mr. Arthur, I was elected while you were away and it may come as a surprise to you, I am not a left-wing government person. [Laughter] I'm a conservative Prime Minister of your damned country!" he said. So I said, "I would retract it if I can, sir". He said, "I would love you to retract it but we both know you're not going to be able to." But he said, “I just want you to understand that I personally will take an interest in the Conservation Institute as my predecessors have done, but bear in mind please, when you open your mouth abroad you're representing your country and the new Prime Minister does not like to be described in that manner." "Yes, sir."

I liked him personally, we had many contacts after that, but that was what was happening internationally and still is. I mean conservation in America is a struggle now. Smithsonian, talk to any of your colleagues, it is a big struggle. I think a country that doesn't preserve its culture is heading downhill. You know, I think there's an absolute necessity for people to be able to look back on tangible evidence. Be it poetry, writing, authors, I mean I include it all in the field. And conservation is very small part of that, except conservation preserves objects and paintings that people can go and see. And I think that's terribly important.

I still do and I firmly believe and did Mr. Trudeau, Pierre Trudeau and Mr. Pelletier, that's the role of the Canadian government internationally and nationally and that's why he said I'd have three years to set it up as an international organization and I think it's a tragedy in a way we've dropped out of that role. I started a publication here and the same Secretary General cut that out as well. But that spread the word, because we sent it out free to international organizations.

NNM: Part of raising the profile of CCI?

BA: Yes meant when you were looking for help, which you are, you know, from the Smithsonian or Australia, they say "Oh yes, those are the guys, didn't they send us some CDs and stuff and didn't we borrow one of their staff for a trip?" And, so that becomes terribly important that PR, I think.

[Music: “Here’s Where Things Get Interesting” by Lee Rosevere from the album “Music for Podcasts 6.” Style: Electronic Minimalism]

NNM: Thank you to Brian Arthur and 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.

Who would you like us to interview as a part of this podcast? Find us on Facebook at Canadian Conservation Institute and let us know.

Next time on the podcast…

Judy Logan: Something is inside it here, if shake, oh yeah, shake, shake how do we open it to find out what's in it- Take a hacksaw to it”. So we let Bob do it and this thing fell out just wet, wet, a green thing, piece of something, it was wet and it was slimy and it was [gasp].

Your hosts, Nathalie Nadeau Mijal and Kelly Johnson, interview Brian Arthur, who was the second director of the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI). He held this post between 1976 and 1980. Originally from the United Kingdom, Brian Arthur became a world-renowned expert in the conservation of pottery (or as he calls it, "sticking pots together"). He moved to Canada in the early 1970s to work at the Historic Sites Division of Parks Canada. In this episode, you will discover how he guided CCI through challenging early days to become a worldwide leader in conservation.

Watch Brian Arthur working on the restoration of an object for the Canadian Museum of History in “The Restoration of the Michipicoten Pot – The Pot's Background, Strategy and Preparation (1).”

Season Tse: conservation scientist

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Transcript of episode “Season Tse: conservation scientist”

Transcript of episode “Season Tse: conservation scientist”

Episode length: 00:35:09

[Music: “We Don’t Know How it Ends” by Lee Rosevere from the album “Music for Podcasts 6.” Style: Electronic Minimalism]

Season Tse (ST): 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.

Nathalie Nadeau Mijal (NNM): I’m Nathalie Nadeau Mijal and this is CCI and CHIN: In Our Words.

Hi, I’m Nathalie Nadeau Mijal. For today’s episode, you’ll be hearing an interview that my supervisor, Kelly Johnson, and I did with Season Tse. Season was a conservation scientist at the Canadian Conservation Institute from 1984 to 2018. What is a conservation scientist, you might be wondering? They work on projects aimed at broadening the understanding of heritage materials as well as test and research different conservation techniques. Season in particular is well known for her work on ink, textiles and testing sensitivity to light exposure.

In this interview, we talked in a more general sense about her work ethic and how CCI has evolved over the years.

Stay tuned after the interview to hear an excerpt from Season’s retirement party.

We begin with Season talking about her ability to bring people together…

[Music fades.]

ST: I think I'm one of those people who see once I know what a person can do or know a piece of information, I see what this information can do for like a client or colleague or something so when I see something good-- I see ok well this person really need to know because it's really good for me-- this person will really appreciate that so I always like to put those together. Whether it is a good paper for a colleague to whom I know might want it or for me, “Oh this person really need to meet this person because they can come together.” So, I see synergy, I'm one of those people. I don't know I just like that when I have a good thing or when I know a good thing I want to share it with people and so that goes with the way I work with clients or you know just relating with colleagues. So I like that, in how I developed my career.

KJ: It's interesting. Were you born in Canada?

ST: No, I was born in China, but then I went to Hong Kong when I was very young.

KJ: Where was your first location in Canada?

ST: St John’s, Newfoundland.

KJ: It was! That’s interesting. That's why you went to Memorial. How old were you when you first came?

ST: I was 14. So, I was a teenager.

KJ: Okay, and then from there to here to Ottawa for Carlton at Carlton?

ST: Actually, from Saint John’s, I went to Waterloo to study for five years in Waterloo University and then from there I came to Carleton to do my Master’s degree. As soon as I finished my research I got the job at CCI and I started in 1984.

KJ: And how would you qualify the training that you that you received?

ST: I think I had the best training. It's a combination of, you know, the two summers I spent at the Marine Research Lab in Torbay, Newfoundland. That was the best training I had in lab skills, lab techniques just to do the mundane, repetitive stuff how to have good technique so learn that and all my work term experiences taught me how you know just broadened my field and then my two years training in my master degree taught me how to do research again, how to do lab work very carefully and when I came here I had the great fortune to work with Helen Burgess, which really helped me for the next ten years.

KJ: And that's where you got more training I guess on learning about conservation?

ST: Yeah, Helen was the best mentor. I would not have, I cannot think of any one better because she is she's just very well recognized in the conservation field everyone knows that she is sharp she is a good teacher so I learned a lot of that from her and all the lab skills that I learned how to do DPs you know like a degree of polymerization for a cellulose— all of that I learned from her. So, I owe my start in conservation mainly to her and then of course I got to know other people you know like Stephan Michalski. So, all these people helped me shape how I look at conservation and how to approach my work.

KJ: It's such a blessing too, isn't it? To have people that share their knowledge like that and to be able to benefit from their knowledge and adapt it to your reality as well and to your needs for your job.

ST: Absolutely and I think that's why because I've received so much, that's why I want to give because, I would not have this to start of this without these people helping me then now that I have something I need to give big you know. That's how you benefit and how you give back. I think, what I give is what I received. So, I think I can give because I don't have a lot of people in other places don't have the security of their job. So you know what their security is what they know and I think it's it as Canadians, as workers of the federal government, I feel very privileged that we have the security of the work. I don't have to feel that I need to keep everything because my job depends on it. I'm able to give freely, not to only to Canadians but also internationally. I think in other places you have to protect your knowledge because people can take advantage of that. And, I've met colleagues that are also so generous to people and the RCE. They are so generous that I thought, if they are so generous, they tell me everything I have to do the same thing I have to pass it on so but I think it's the privilege of the job security I think that and I'm very thankful for that, right.

NNM: Do you think that that generosity with knowledge and that interest in teaching is something that kind of extends to CCI? Because of that security that you were saying comes from working as an agency for the government, people have a little bit more of that comfort so they're able to share more and teach more?

ST: Absolutely! I think you know CCI that has a reputation of very generous with knowledge. All my colleagues are very generous, so I'm not the only one I'm just part of this whole body who is very generous with sharing and giving and because of that security, because of, you know, we don't need to kind of claw ourselves up you know and I think that that is a gift that the Canadian government has given not only to the Canadian institutions but to the world because of this security. We can afford to be generous because we have been given so much and I think it was yes Stefan [Michalski] reminded me I think I talked about that in the speech that we are so blessed to have CCI. We've been given so much, that really the only way to give back, not only to preserve our own heritage, is to spread that knowledge to help others, the rest of the world in in whatever capacity we can to help them preserve their heritage and I think that is a gift that the Canadian government, the taxpayers are giving to the world and they might not even know it!

KJ: Well, hopefully this podcast will be a way to promote that and let Canadians know about what CCI does and how fortunate we are to have in our country an organization like this and people willing to share their knowledge and help preserve Canadians’ history.

KJ: How long would you say it took you to feel comfortable in the world of conservation?

ST: I started going to conferences and that’s also due to the generosity of CCI. I went to the first conference in 1988. It was this paper conference hosted by CCI. Actually, Helen Burgess was the one who posted the paper symposium 1988 and that was probably my first conference and I gave my first paper there because we've just actually at that point I had four years of data on enzymes, how they perform and things like that and what the effect of paper. So, we had a paper and that was my first paper that I presented. Helen was the co-author but there was I can remember the nervousness of that and you know in front of all these “who’s who” in paper conservation but I think that was really important that Helen had connected me with some of the “who's who” in the conservation field and so I think that's probably my first experience where I know something more about enzymes and a lot of people and then I start working with Sherry [Guild] in the paper lab on how to use enzymes you know just testing enzymes on treatments and so I think that is probably the first where--yeah that was four years afterwards—that I started feeling a little bit more comfortable in this one thing. I still don't know a lot about, well, I started to know a little bit of a conservation, paper conservation and treatments but and I did the analysis using a degree of polymerization, so I I've been sort of just in the background doing sort of the basic analysis testing and things like that. So I always feel that it's important to start from the bottom. You know all the ins and outs and the flaws and the strengths of different analysis. So, when you present something you know how solid, how certain you can be in what you say because you know what you've done. So, I think all of those five years is a really good foundation and then from then on Helen also got involved with a number of larger projects and I started getting involved with those paper research projects and then I started getting involved. So, then I broadened a little bit by little bit from different projects and I work with Helen for a good ten years. So, all of those time was yeah it's just build the basis and of course I read her papers I listen to how she talks and I know how good she is as a teacher so I learned a lot from that too. How does she communicate? Not only does she know how to do it, how to summarize the results, how to write it, how to present it, like the whole all the whole process from you know the thinking, the doing you know look at the whole process? Yeah, I learned it from her.

KJ: So, you started working mainly in with paper but then eventually and in your words at you're— again I'm going to refer to your to your into your speech at your party many times, you'll see-- but you then said that you made the switch from paper to textile and can you talk to us a little bit about that why did what was the interest there or was it a need or how did that happen?

ST: There was a need and also at the time around 1990 I started realizing you know so I want to work not so much under Helen because I've built up some knowledge and some technical skills. I thought I could apply that, what I learned, to textiles and at the time there was no one to help study textiles in conservation science. So in CCI there was there was no one and one of the questions from at the time I think there were the focus groups and the focus group was I remember was 1995 in the Calgary focus groups. It became clear that we need someone to focus on textiles conservation treatments and things like that but one of the big problems was silk. There was no one in CCI at the time to look at the deterioration of silk. How do you measure it? What is the effect of treatment on silk? You know, what happens? So, there was no one to do that so when I proposed that maybe I can look at the characterization of silk to CCI management and it was accepted it was actually then we spent the next five years developing first of all technique to and so how do you because prior to that is all mechanical. You need you know the Instron to test the strength of fibers but at the time we don't have an Instron. We don't have a controlled environment to test silk. So, the other way was well we do what we're good at which is degree of polymerization which measure the molecular weight of silk. So then we spent the next five years, we have a large project looking at silk deterioration and the effect of treatment on silk. So we had a whole project was five years and we presented that work.

NMM: Do you think there's a reason why silk hadn't been studied up until then?

ST: It was— well first of all there were I mean there are techniques there out there but we didn't think that was sensitive enough and then we want to find the technique in the technique of using molecular way analysis was new at the time. It was 1995 so it was relatively new so we thought well we if we want to study sit we need to master that technique so that we could study the effective treatments and light aging and this sort of thing so we thought what that would be a good start because if you want to study a material you first of all need to know how to analyze it, how to measure changes in them, right? So and you need something that is sensitive. At the time, there was Greg Young who was also considering using thermal analysis but he had other priorities. So he started looking at silk using thermal analysis but other priorities took him away and he was not able to get back to it but he had the full intention to actually develop thermal analysis to study silk.

NNM: That would be a different way of doing it from what you developed.

ST: That's right, yeah. So, now maybe today with our new scientists here maybe that's something they could look into using thermal analysis.

NNM: We just gave someone a research project.

ST: Yeah, possibly!

KJ: I'm just wondering… can you explain to us how conservation science fits within CCI for people who might not know so much about it?

ST: Conservation science if we were to look at—there is the analytical side and then there is the sort of the prevention and the environmental aspects of conservation that is the focus of the work by the preservation services, right? So, there's two aspects of the science and I think both of them are considered science one is you know sort of the micro aspect looking at the materials. So, I think I always think that conservation science is to support what conservators do because they're the ones who are handling the objects now there is one aspect of conservation science which is sort of the scholastic part of it where you study materials you know artists material and that's a whole different area which is on its own-- its own scholarship so its own value. That's different, but the day-to-day analysis of things I always see it as how do I help a conservator to either treat an object or care for an object or plan an exhibition for an object. Like, I'm just thinking of my own work with microfade testing. I never thought that the testing itself would be the focus. Those are just steps to help a conservator do their work, make more knowledgeable decisions and make more accurate, more better choices right so I always think of my work from my point of view and I know others, my colleagues feel the same way that their work while interesting and fascinating, they're there to help. We are to support conservators who are at the frontline and I think preservation services, all of the ingenuity that goes into it, is to preserve ultimately the object but the conservators are the frontline people who are dealing with the objects. I see it that way. That that's my own conviction that I need to focus on doing my work very well because I want that to be… the data, the information I produce is the best it can be and useful yeah to report and useful. It has to be useful.

NNM: Do you find that aspect of your work fulfilling? Is that one of the things that you derive satisfaction from that your work is going to support the work of others and other people are relying on you?

ST: For me it is. I know sometimes it's very easy because you can get into one little nook or one detail that is so fascinating you just keep following it but then I have to call hold myself back and say, “Wait a minute! So your time is spent, paid by the taxpayer for a purpose!” And I have to kind of hold myself back so that I can balance out what I do to set by my own curiosity and what I need for my job right right so so I I have to hold back because it's very easy you know the world is a fascinating place so you can just easily just go into the one area and just keep going and you know if you don't discipline yourself it's just very easy.

KJ: Can you tell us a little bit how you see conservation science, how it changed throughout your career. You were working for CCI for 34 years in those 34 years have you noticed major changes or did the pendulum go from one side all the way to the other and then back somehow or could you could you explore that a little bit with us?

ST: You know when we first started, when I first started and 34 years ago I think having a PhD is very rare. David Grattan had a PhD and so some people had but it was not one of us some of our best scientists have bachelor degrees but they were most knowledgeable, very knowledgeable but as time goes by nowadays that all of our new scientists all have PhDs. So, the degree of academic training has also increased.

NNM: How do you think that's changed the work that's done?

ST: I think with the PhD training you get a very in-depth training in one area that's how you know you know a lot a lot about one field and so for these for new scientists then they didn't then need to apply what they know in that one field. In conservation sciences, it’s broad, it's varied, right? So, you know, you're not just looking at one plastic or you looking at plastic with many background, with many variations. So, it's a challenge and so, I think the new scientists that that we hire, you can see that they are also interested in not only in what they know very well, but they are also interested in seeing, “Okay, how do I use this to study that?” You know? So, there's that curiosity I think that's the key that you see in the new scientists that we have brought to CCI. They have got this curiosity and that love of materials and be able to apply and also being meticulous at the same time. So it's kind of hard that you have this yeah you have a broad view but you have to be meticulous.

NNM: Maybe we can ask about a little bit more about what CCI was like when you started to work?

ST: Well, back then things are very different. There were a lot of freedom right and I think when CCI started and then when this organization begins you need that freedom to explore and just you know just to see people work together and not to not put too much restraint on it. The “golden years” where you know you just you want to look at something go ahead do that do that right so and it's in this great and they were you know at the time we were still synthesizing this toxic stuff you know we were eating in the lab you know could. You have the lab here and then there's a coffee table here and okay you drop what you did and come down have a coffee and go back, like things like that. Health and safety was very different. And we work very, like for our group at the time it was the conservation processes research so our we work very closely with conservators developing treatment we're there for paper textiles or archeology whatever so, so we were you know we're always back and forth, right? So, there was a lot of synergy and then as things later on in the years we need to be more accountable and I think it was some adjustment to us, because you're so free you can do whatever you want and you just have to write a monthly report okay you just have to tell your boss what did you do last month and that's it! Now some you still have some accountability but later on it becomes you have to have key commitments you have to say well what have you done and the project proposals started coming and then then you have to write down work this is what you want to do this way. So, it becomes gradually becomes you know you can see you know the accountability you need to have more of that and I think it's a necessary evil because you know you can't just keep doing what you want. Like, looking at myself as an example I don't like writing things up, I just like to do it. So, I would do it and then there's a number of projects where I've got great data but because I didn't have to publish it or no one pushes me to publish… it was just sitting there and I ended up never publishing it. You know, we spent time on it the data is good. So I really appreciate sort of the discipline that came just the discipline to write it up for the reports because they're for clients you have to do it and then later on you know the writing up, it just makes retrieving information so much easier for everyone. So that discipline comes and I think that's probably the biggest change from the sort of the laissez-faire, do whatever you want.

KJ: And then when would you say the change started to occur approximately…?

ST: About 20 years ago, I would say. Yeah, because I we have to write proposals for you know like the silk project well what do you want to do what do you and to do this year what did you do so you had to report on the results things like that. And I think in the 80s, it's the golden year because funding—there was no questions asked you know just people were you know everything was free but later on you have to be accountable.

KJ: That's interesting. Would you say that's one of the striking changes that occurred here at CCI throughout your career, was this this need for to become a little bit more accountable and to be a little bit more structured in a sense?

ST: And also the field of conservation science has grown significantly over the last 20-30 years right and with these European Union big projects you know where you have multiple countries combining they do what you know like they have like that kind of manpower that we don't here at CCI. So we actually learned to be very smart and doing things that are very targeted. Yeah. I think that is another field where when I first started well there was very little, so anything it's a plus. So now we have to be very careful, very targeted and I think CCI is known for our leadership in certain things. You know, we excel in certain things and I think we've done that very well and I think over the last many years we learn to be very specific. Yeah instead of “Let's do more of this.” No, no we can't afford to do more of something else somebody else is doing it you know the EU projects you know they've got 10-20 years, millions of euros pouring through those let them do those right? So, let's do things that are targeted for either for Canadian collections or that is unique to us in Canada, which would also benefit other people. So, I think like the microfade project is one of those things where, you know, we didn't develop it but we have a need for it so we use it and we take it and use it for the benefit of our Canadian clients but at the same time our knowledge also benefits others…

NNM: It's interesting how those global changes can have such an impact on what ends up being the work that that you do.

ST: I think CCI has always… I think 34 years ago there were less institutions doing the work that we do. Then over the years, it has grown and they have greater capacities to do some things so we just became smarter and we were good at some things and we become better at those things. Like you know, in risk assessment and dye analysis and all of those things. So we become you know of instead of being good at like everything good at these like specific areas and so we become standard of excellence in those things, which I think it's important.

NNM: Has that changed the way that CCI is viewed around the world because now we're sort of becoming more specific in these areas?

ST: People know the depth of knowledge. We have that reputation so and I think that's just how it should be right so you start off with flat and then you've got these bumps here that that become greater knowledge and then you've got these very peaks of people with knowledge and not that I think we stop trying to be peaks everywhere because we know we don't have that like we're not Canadian taxpayers didn’t fund us for that. But, in the areas that we're very good, let’s encourage that and I think I think that's what CCI has become instead of this flat overall mountain good in a lot of things we just become you know, specialized in certain things and there let other people do other things like “Great!” You know and the iron gall ink project was another thing like that. I said I'm not I'm not going to compete with you know the 20 country, EU funded projects that are going on in in Europe, but we have specific questions so I'm going to use what they have learned and I'm going to apply it to what our collection needs. We have special knowledge that is different, that sets us apart and so and that's I think that's how we should yeah we should develop knowledge—not to try to be everything to everyone. You can't do that.

KJ: And from your point of view what makes Canada unique as far as our heritage and/or the projects or you know, what stands out?

ST: Actually, the CCI is in a unique position that we provide service to all of Canadian institutions and in I believe in all the world people you know who are funded like the museums they have fun they fund their analytical services for their own institutions. So, if you're a small museum you don't have that you don't have access to any of this but in Canadian institutions, we have any publicly owned institutions can benefit from services from CCI. That I think unique to the world like

NNM: Our clients enrich the work that's being done, in a way.

ST: Yeah, and like we were you know we were at a microfade user meeting and that was what came out was that okay well this institution had their own tester and they have their own analytical services but they only do work for them but if you don't have you're not part of that then you're out. So, there's very few—if any-- organizations that would provide services to the masses of small institutions that doesn't have money to pay for or they would have to have them maybe and you have to pay for all the services right? But, you know the Canadian institutions are very, very fortunate that a lot of our services are free to them. That is unique yeah and we and I don't know if the institution's know that but the rest of the world they don't-- that's not how it works.

KJ: I would like to get your advice for an emerging scientist maybe if there's any words of wisdom that you would have to share with anybody?

ST: I think it’s to be curious and always learning and look at every opportunity to learn about materials and keep an open mind and do the best you can and excel in what you do and keep improving and I think over the years I would say there's not a day that I go by I don't say, “I'm learning something today,” whether it is a small thing about material or just learning how to write better or how to communicate better. Like, always keep improving and keep moving forward and also I would say for CCI if you were going to work for CCI I think probably one of the most important thing is to appreciate you know we're funded by the Canadian taxpayer to maintain Canadian collections. Keep the big picture in mind. It's a privilege to be here so make the most of every moment and use what you know that you've been trained for in your in undergrad and graduate schools and apply it and be flexible and I 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.

[Music: “Where Was I?” by Lee Rosevere from the album “Music for Podcasts 6.” Style: Electronic Minimalism]

NNM: Season Tse’s retirement party was held at CCI in October 2018. In this recording, Season talks about the importance of the social life at CCI and then goes on to tell the story of the first conversation she had with Stefan Michalski, a Senior Conservation Scientist at CCI.

[Music fades.]

ST: And then, my coffee buddies and you're more than my coffee buddies. Ellen, Jane, Tara, Jen, and you're all here. I think the coffee time is to me more than just social because there's so much cross-pollination. You hear about who's doing what and you hear that and you see what the connections are and I just I'm very grateful for that. It's not only just a morale booster but to me it's really just part of CCI.

And Stefan, Stefan. I think probably it was about maybe 1987. I had my first conversation with Stefan because I think we were on the way back or to the ICCG conference in Victoria and since then and many a conversation after that. I think what Stefan talked to me about set my attitude to what my job. That this CCI the existence of these is a great privilege. A great privilege because of the funding that we get from the government because of the support from management because of the interacting at the active working between scientists and conservators and the support we get from all the staff who are not conservators or scientists. That combination is a privilege and I have never taken that for granted. That my job it's not to build my own career to be to do reputation but my job is to make the taxpayers money count and to me, it just stuck with me that I keep that always in the forefront and he explained to me at one time using chocolate bars and per capita of chocolate bars or something. I know what he meant but I couldn't repeat it, but I knew that that was a big deal that the CCI’s existence is a big deal and that we need to take advantage of it and benefit not only our Canadian museums but also in the worldwide community of conservation.

So, now, I think I'm glad I'm the one who has the last say. Many of you, in my mind, you're so brilliant and gifted and talented. You know I make jewelry so this makes sense to you. Many of you are superstars. You are like one of those gems and so I recognize you as that but to me, I am not. I don't consider myself one of those, but I am a very good connector. I must say, I'm very good and that's the part that I play the best and probably that's what you would probably notice. I see connections in people. I see connection and opportunities and I like to put them together and that is what I like to do most and I just congratulate that I get to work with these superstars. All you superstars and I'm so glad that I'm a part of this.

[Music: “Here’s Where Things Get Interesting” by Lee Rosevere from the album “Music for Podcasts 6.” Style: Electronic Minimalism]

NNM: Thank you to Season Tse 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.

Who would you like us to interview as a part of this podcast? Find us on Facebook at Canadian Conservation Institute and let us know.

Next time on the podcast…

Brian Arthur: In three years, you were to make the CCI the most important conservation Institute in the world. If you can't do that say now because if you don't do that will put you in a rowing boat with one oar and push you back to England.

In this episode, your hosts, Nathalie Nadeau Mijal and Kelly Johnson, interview Season Tse. Season started working at CCI as a conservation scientist in 1984 (the same year as our previous guest, Charlie Costain). What do conservation scientists do? They work on projects aimed at understanding the material, chemical and technical aspects of heritage objects. They also research and test different conservation techniques. Season, in particular, is well known for her conservation work on ink and textiles and for testing she conducted on the sensitivity of various objects to light exposure. In this interview, we talked in a more general sense about her work ethic and how CCI has evolved over the years.

To watch Season Tse working on an 18th century petticoat, have a look at the CCI video "Treatment of the Marseille Petticoat."

Charlie Costain: scientist and heritage advocate

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Transcript of episode “Charlie Costain: scientist and heritage advocate”

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 scientist 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…

[Music fades.]

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 how you speak of 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, I sense your fondness for the career that you both led and I find, we both actually find, that everybody would want that, you know? So it's always it's always so nice to hear people at the end of their careers that are still so fond about the years that they did have. So, 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…

[Music fades.]

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.

Who would you like us to interview as a part of this podcast? Find us on Facebook at Canadian Conservation Institute and let us know.

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.”

[Music fades.]

In this episode, your hosts, Nathalie Nadeau Mijal and Kelly Johnson, interview Charlie Costain. Charlie started working at CCI in 1984 as a conservation scientist, and then he moved through the ranks to become a manager and a director. He also spent two years working as Director General of CHIN, but we are planning to cover his time at CHIN in a future episode. (Stay tuned!)

Have a look at our corporate video to see the statue of the “Captain” mentioned at the beginning of the episode. You will also see Charlie and a number of current and retired CCI staff members.


Listen on Apple Podcasts - “Introduction”

Listen on Google Podcasts - “Introduction”

Transcript of episode “Introduction”

Transcript of episode “Introduction”

Episode length: 00:04:54

CCI-CHIN: An Introduction

[Music: "We Don't Know How it Ends" by Lee Rosevere from the album "Music for Podcasts 6." Style: Electronic Minimalism]

Nathalie Nadeau Mijal (NNM): Somewhere in the Nation's Capital, there is a rather nondescript, two story converted warehouse, with nothing to distinguish it other than a mysterious sculpture of a captain keeping watch above the front door. Inside this building are some of Canada's greatest treasures and the people charged with their protection—the staff of the Canadian Conservation Institute and the Canadian Heritage Information Network.

This is CCI and CHIN: In Our Words.

Let me start by introducing myself. I'm Nathalie Nadeau Mijal. My co-host, Kelly Johnson, has been in charge of learning and development at the Canadian Conservation Institute since 2015. The goal for today's episode is to tell you a little bit more about the Canadian Conservation Institute and the Canadian Heritage Information Network otherwise known as CCI and CHIN for short. So Kelly and I thought who better to tell you about these two organizations than the

Director General himself. His name is Jérôme Moisan.

[Music fades.]

Kelly Johnson (KJ): Thank you for taking the time to meet with us this morning. Could you please elaborate a little on what the mandate is for both CCI and CHIN and maybe explain what the acronyms stand for as well?

Jérôme Moisan (JM): Yes, so the Canadian Conservation Institute, or CCI, is an agency whose role it is to support museums and heritage organizations and the conservation of their collections. So, it's about conservation science, preservation services, and also the treatment of artifacts. In the case of CHIN, which is the Canadian Heritage Information Network, the purpose is really to help museums manage their collection and provide them with tools so that those collections can be consulted by Canadians, accessible to Canadians through the web, through the internet, so databases and so on and so forth, so that individual Canadians don't have to go to individual museums to see all the artifacts. They can do research and consult the databases as they see fit.

KJ: Great! And how do both organizations fit within the Department of Canadian Heritage?

JM: So, by virtue of their mandates they are special operating agencies within the Department of Canadian Heritage. What that does is that it provides both organizations with additional administrative freedoms or abilities to do a number of things to better serve their clients. In this case, the client and the clients are museums and heritage organizations and the kind of things that we can now do is to charge for our services or sometimes develop in a different way certain tools for our clients.

KJ: So as you know Nathalie and I have both been tasked with the oral history project for both organizations. Could you please give us a perspective of what that looks like?

JM: The project is really a great project to pass on the knowledge and the wisdom of all the people that have spent a lot of their careers in both organizations and have for one thing a perspective about the history of the organizations but also what was the purpose behind them, what have they learned, and all this wisdom we can collect and share with the public. We can share with our employees current employees and maybe share with the next generation of our employees who may be interested in joining us in the wonderful world of conservation and collection management.

[Music: "Where Was I?" by Lee Rosevere from the album "Music for Podcasts 6." Style: Electronic Minimalism]

NNM: Thank you to Jérôme Moisan for joining us today.

CCI and CHIN: In Our Words is a production of the Knowledge Sharing division of the Canadian Conservation Institute.

Our music is by Lee Rosevere.

Who would you like us to interview as a part of this podcast? Find us on Facebook at Canadian Conservation Institute and let us know.

Next time on the podcast: "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. On a daily basis when you walk in and see what people doing, I'm gobsmacked by what they can achieve."

[Music fades.]

In this introduction to the podcast series, Kelly Johnson and Nathalie Nadeau Mijal speak to Director General Jérôme Moisan, who explains the mandates of CCI and CHIN as well as what to expect from the series.

Production team

Kelly Johnson Kelly Johnson

Co-host and CCI Learning and Development Officer

Kelly Johnson co-hosts CCI and CHIN: In Our Words. She became CCI's Learning and Development Officer in 2015, after having worked for several years at the Translation Bureau. Her role involves leveraging the vast knowledge held by CCI's conservators and scientists in order to create learning products for the Canadian heritage community.

Nathalie Nadeau Mijal Nathalie Nadeau Mijal

Co-host, Producer and Oral History Project Coordinator at CCI

Nathalie Nadeau Mijal joined CCI in 2018. She is responsible for researching content for CCI and CHIN: In Our Words and for co-hosting and producing the episodes. Before working for CCI, she worked for a number of museums in Canada and in the UK. She holds a M.A. in Museum Studies from the University of Leicester as well as a M.A. in Comparative Literature from University College London.

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