Audio Podcast: Rachel Penniman on giving voice to emerging conservators

When it comes to the protection of cultural resources for the long haul, conservators are on the front lines: providing hands-on TLC, whether it’s in a museum or at the scene of a natural disaster. Now, a new group has formed to provide a support network for young conservators and newcomers to the field. Rachel Penniman is the chair of the Emerging Conservation Professionals Network. In this podcast, she discusses how the group is using the social web to give a voice to the next generation of heritage caretakers.


Jeff: Welcome to the Voices of the Past podcast. I’m Jeff Guin, and today I will be talking to Rachel Penniman, president of the Emerging Conservation Professionals Network.

Hi Rachel, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for being here.

Rachel: Oh of course! I am excited to get some of this information out there.

Jeff: Now how long have you been with the Emerging Conservation Professional Network?

Rachel: I have been helping out trying to develop it for over a year now, but I have only been chair for, I think it has been four or five months in sort of the official capacity.

Jeff: OK. Tell us a little bit about what the group does. What is its purpose?

Rachel: The purpose of ECPN is  to help emerging conservators, people who are new to the field network with each other as well as sort of more established conservators in the field. It’s such a small field, it can be difficult getting started. Meeting people, knowing how to get into the field, knowing what sort of experiences to get and then knowing where to get those experiences. So we are hoping that by providing more of the network where those emerging conservators can talk to each other or people who are just a little bit ahead of them–they’ll have a better resource to help them get started.

Jeff: And how have folks responded to your efforts?

Rachel: So far we have gotten a really positive response both from emerging conservators as well as from established conservators.  We’ve gotten a number of emerging conservators who’ve been participating and contributing to our blog and our other sites. And a lot of established conservators who said, “gosh, this would have really helped me when I was getting started.” So it has been great to get the support across the board.

Penniman in action
Penniman conserves an Egyptian bronze during her 2007 internship at the Walters Art Museum

Jeff: Where can folks go to find out more about your blog?

Rachel: OK. The blog is, and what you will find there are updates on what’s happening with ECPN in terms the running of it. You will find information about the conference calls that we have, minutes from that. You will also find information about workshops or educational opportunities or just general announcements that we think will be interesting or important to emerging conservators. And what we are hoping is that in the future we will get more emerging conservators to contribute content to this blog so that  it will be more than just the “bare bones” business sort of stuff but really interesting articles from students who might not have all those other outlets to get some of their research published or some of this information in print.

Jeff: Where you involved with blogging before this?

Rachel: Not very much and I have to admit, I am not really the super tech-savvy person. And so a lot of this I have been picking up as we go along and I have had a lot of people really help out. When we were first looking into starting a group for emerging conservators, Laura Brill and I were working at the Shelburne Museum. And we were working for Nancie Ravanel, and she is incredibly tech-savvy and really got us started with a lot of things. And Laura also, a lot of the stuff that we have set up now, she really was the one to get it going and start up. So I have definitely been helped a lot along the way.

Jeff: Who blogs at the site?

Rachel: I have been blogging. We have also had Katie Mullen. Steve Pickman just did one of our more recent posts about getting a library of books together to send to a different country.

Jeff: So, I’d like to hear a little bit more about the recent AIC meeting. I understand that this is where you had your group’s debut as far as your social media efforts. What did you do there and how did it change the feel of the conference for you?

Rachel: We did blog from the annual meeting and a number of people also posted on their personal Twitter accounts and it was definitely a different feel for me. I felt way more connected. I feel the annual meeting is always a lot going on at once; there are so many interesting talks going on at once. Everyone that I speak to who goes really feels like they’re always missing out on something. There’s always something interesting that they wanted to get to that they couldn’t make it to. But now, because there’s so much more sort of real time posting of what’s going on right now, what was really interesting in this talk that just happened, right now or five minutes ago. I think that people are able to discuss it more at the meeting in person. Like, there were talks that I didn’t go to that I heard a lot about just from reading Twitter posts. So, that was really interesting–it deepened the conversation that was going on there. I felt far more informed, also.

Jeff: Was that an intentional thing? Did you go with a plan that you were going to live blog the conference or you were going to Twitter the conference, or did it just happen on its own?

Rachel: No, there was definitely a plan to do it beforehand. There were a number of us who had offered to blog from the conference. I don’t know that we had discussed Twittering beforehand, but it seemed like sort of a natural extension of that. I think it definitely helped to have that plan in place before we went to really know that people were going to be there with their computers and ready and set up to go.

Jeff: What kind of impact do you think these tools are going to have on the future of conservation?

Rachel: I think there’s gonna be a lot more information getting out to conservators about research that’s happening, changes in the field, much faster than it has in the past. In the past, if you were using a new material, testing something out, trying a new technique, generally, you had to wait until a paper got published or until a talk was presented to a large conference for that information to be available across all sorts of people in the field. Now, we’ve got people like Nancie Ravenel, who has a Wiki online that’s talking about the really early stages of some research she’s doing with the new material, and she’s got people who are trying it out in other places, in other ways and contributing to this. There’s a lot of other information that’s really accessible early on, that I think makes it more exciting. These tests that I think are done in such small groups are so isolated; it’s more connected now.

Jeff: Right, and I know that some members of your organization advocate for open source and open sharing of research and allowing people to collaborate on research rather than keeping it close to the vest. What are you feelings on that?

Rachel: Personally, I think it’s a great idea. I feel like information is power and I can understand why many conservators are hesitant to get a lot of this information public. There’s always this concern that if you have all of this information on how to do treatments out there that people who don’t really know what they’re doing are going to try it out and possibly cause damage to something. However, even without that information out there, I think that, chances are, if somebody wants to try to treat something themselves, they’re going to find a way to do it and its not necessarily going to be the right way. I just, you know, my father comes from an information sciences background, so I’ve really grown up with this “information is power and if it’s not shared information, it’s lost–it’s useless.” So, that’s very deeply engrained in me.

Jeff: Excellent. Now, do you use any of these tools in your personal life, apart from the Emerging Conservation Professionals Network?

Rachel: I started a blog a while ago with an effort to keep in touch with family, and then did not keep up with it well at all, unfortunately. I think it’s one of those things you’ve really got to set aside the time for. So, I’m sure it’s out there. I’m sure somebody’s gonna find it and be like “wow, she’s not kidding, that’s pretty embarrassing.” There’s got to be, like, three posts on there, but I really did start out strong.

Jeff: Do you have a Twitter or a Friendfeed or use any of those social tools or even YouTube?

Rachel: I do Twitter, but mostly I’ve been just Twittering professionally. I always sort of felt like my life wasn’t interesting enough that everyone would want to read all of these things about what I was doing. I’m following quite a few people on Twitter; I have family members that I’m really keeping up with that way. I’m just not so good at the contributing on a personal level.

Jeff: Now, what is the role of your group in trying to get some of the folks that are in the traditional American Institute for Conservation group to adopt these technologies?

Rachel: I like to think of us as really good guinea pigs, actually, because we’re sort of a smaller group, a lot of the people in our group are a bit more tech-savvy. We’re trying to test some of this stuff out, like the Ning site or the blog … And I am sort of excited to see that AIC has started up a blog, I think that it’s a great way to get Information out there, and I think because we’re smaller, we can try some of this stuff out-maybe see how it works for us and then they can see if it is something that’s viable for the larger group. I think that’s a pretty exciting way to start things out. As for other things that we’ve got, hopefully in the future we’re trying to work on getting some podcasts together that emerging conservators can develop …

cleaning the bear
Penniman (left) and Laura Brill vacuum a grizzly bear at the Shelburne museum (Photo courtesy of Shelburne museum)

Jeff: Maybe even some training video or something like that.

Rachel: Yeah, that would be another great idea I think we’ve got–because emerging conservators are all over the place at all these different museums are tapped into this huge resource of connection like videos, audio, any other way to make it interesting for people–ways to get information out there. I think we’ve got a great resource for that.

Jeff: Well, Rachel thanks for joining me today. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Rachel: Just thank you for the opportunity to talk to about this; I really appreciate it.

Jeff: Well that’s it for this edition of the Voices of the Past Podcast. Now, if you’d like to read the transcript of this interview or learn more about how social media can be used to impact heritage in your world, visit our show notes site. That’s Until next time, this is Jeff Guin and we’ll see you online.

3 thoughts on “Audio Podcast: Rachel Penniman on giving voice to emerging conservators”

  1. Thanks for your kind words, Rachel. I don’t consider myself tech savvy, but I absolutely see potential uses for social media for the conservation profession and I enjoy experimenting with how the various tools can be used.

    Its impressive what the EPCN group is accomplishing in such a short period of time.

    I’d like to thank Jeff for adding the transcript to the page along with the audio. That’s a big help to folks like me who live and work in areas that are bandwidth-challenged.

    One thing I’d also like to point out is that I think that Rachel was referring to the wiki that I assembled on Rachel, Laura, and my experiences using the emulsifying thickener Pemulen TR2 in creating cleaning solutions for removing linseed oil and machine oil from painted surfaces rather than the wiki that I created for the Social Media for Collections Care talk. The Pemulen wiki was initially created to facilitate writing the talk that Rachel, Laura and I presented at the AIC Wooden Artifacts Group meeting this year. It was a great way to share documents and ideas long distance since Rachel was no longer in Shelburne. Since we gave the presentation, having the wiki available has made it much easier to share the information with conservators who weren’t able to attend the talk.


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