FAIC REFRESHER COURSES
Caroline K. Keck
ABSTRACT—The purposes, methods, personnel requirements and achievements of refresher workshops sponsored by the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation are described.
FROM ITS INCEPTION the AIC has shown interest in continuing education for its membership. The natural professional concern seems exceptionally strong among conservators. Rightly so. We are an underdeveloped field of endeavor which only recently has found acceptance at the edge of academia. Besides, in our operative work, we constantly face unresolved problems. None of us can ever know enough. The artifacts we treat may fall into general categories but far too many of them exhibit unique physical and aesthetic characteristics, damnably alien to our preconceptions. We need each other. For the practitioner, isolation can spell disaster. We need to enlarge our repertoire, we need better understanding of our differences, we need professional vision—and we know this.
To date, AIC has sponsored assorted forms of lectures, guided tours, specialized symposia, scheduled panel discussions. It has offered “hands-on” episodes (but usually presented by us to those who employ our services), demonstrations of individual techniques, and more recently the face-to-face peer exchanges stimulated by poster sessions. AIC audiences have by no means been passive. Nevertheless, for the majority of our membership its vast experience has been one of listening. Not everyone benefits from listening and for that matter even great lecturers are sometimes interminable bores. Not everyone has something worth saying. On the other hand, many inarticulate people have a lot to offer if encouraged to express themselves.
Only a small percentage of our membership has first hand knowledge of what transpires at a refresher course. Many who have participated in refreshers resemble the people who have been on Big Game Safaris in Africa. Complete strangers discovering such a bond, have been known to withdraw into a private world of shared recollections, distancing themselves from all others who may only have read about, heard about or seen films about the lands and the beasts who roam them. The same mystique applies to conservators who learn each has attended a refresher. They tend to indulge in a highly vocal exchange of nostalgia which can drive nearby colleagues straight up the walls.
In its approach and in its procedures, a refresher is disparate from customary forms of learning. It is tailored to encompass the professional needs of individuals. It has the ability to stimulate a voicing of pros and cons regarding our unchartered sea of variables from colleagues who normally refrain from expressing themselves. Nobody likes to ask questions which others brush off as stupid. But there are stupid questions, which, given uninhibited attention, can prove that the questioner is only one of many equally (if unadmittedly) stupid about the matter to hand. We like to think we left “make-believe” behind us in the 19th century and do not consciously play the role of flatterer to the naked Emperor on his new clothes. And quite truly, conservators as a whole rarely lack for common sense. But we do need the voicing of unvoiced concerns, and cannot afford to forego the search for simple clarifications which this can impel. It could be that the mystique of refreshers is no more than their intimate ambience which so far has neither eliminated show-offs, nor silenced buzz-in-the-ears, but has surely offered to the hesitant among us encouragement to speak out.
Membership in a refresher course is limited to 15 or under. The time span is one work week. A refresher runs from a Sunday evening get-to-gether straight through the week until late Friday afternoon. Housing is in dormitories or in the least expensive communal accommodations which can be arranged for the group. The same people see each other day and night. They would not be there if they were not concerned with the same subject matter. So that in a sense everyone is singing the same song albeit in slightly different keys. And as a rule everyone knows all the words as well as the tune. A genuine peer occasion, with refresher mates sharing each others triumphs and trials, tempering boasts with worries, and speaking to one another quite off the cuff. Conversation seldom leaves the central topic, the subject matter of the course. And conversation goes on and on, in coffee breaks, over meals, over cocktails and way into the night. Friendships are formed which tolerate deep differences in theory, in practice, in technical concepts. The toleration occurs because each has learned to respect the other's viewpoint. Whether this fortuitous maturity can be credited to the refresher ambience or to its time span is hard to say, but it happens and we need to have it happen. Bonds of such quality are worth their weight in gold. Exponents of divergent opinions who find they can work side by side and enjoy it, will provide our profession with long-term backbone.
Content of a refresher is privileged material. Taping is prohibited. The participants may choose to share notes with one another, authorize a post-refresher hand out from communal information, but outsiders may partake only in what is issued to them. Photo-documentation, specifically undertaken for the participants, supplements memory and notes on demonstrations viewed, and occasionally the lighter moments of assemblage. Non-course persons present are there only by invitation. A refresher is a private affair, run for its participants the way they want it run.
At the July Williamstown painting refresher on “Recent Developments in Lining Techniques,” course guides and liaison knew in advance what certain participants wanted to demonstrate. Others, during the sessions, offered personal variations of techniques, impromptu. There is never enough time for everything everyone wants to see or show, which is probably just as well. Intensity of concentration mounts to such a high point that survival at that pitch for more than a week would be practically unbearable. A mid-week field trip and a subsequent “refresher banquet” with fun and games, helps mitigate nervous tensions without removing the group excitement. Refresher emotional graphs are unlikely to duplicate one another precisely, but all seem to register an early sharp rise which continues on the upgrade to an apogee and then drops, from sheer physical exhaustion, to level itself off on a well-regained medium high. After nights spent in so many hash sessions that most are short of sleep by Friday, few participants want to break up the gathering. Course evaluations, forwarded after the return home, reflect glowing approval of the experience with unanimous appreciation for the protected privacy of utterances. Criticisms are precise and minor, and instructive for the organization of refreshers yet to come. The following excerpts taken from an evaluation sent by a European guest of the Williamstown site host, are typical:
“… Back at my desk again I would like to thank you for giving me the chance to participate at the refresher course last week. It has been a good week. I think the two main instructors have been very well chosen … the conventional tradition and the young hot blood. Only in the US can such basic differences in approach be discussed so openly. … However, had the seminar taken place in Europe more time would probably have been spent in discussing aesthetics and ethics…”
All evaluations emphasized three refresher benefits: the wealth of exchanged information, the healthy objectivity of discussions, and the warm pleasure experienced from friendship with colleagues.
In one way setting up a refresher is easy, in another anything but easy. Pivotal for success is to have as liaison someone who has already attended a refresher and knows the elements that make it tick. It is next to impossible to make the uninitiated understand how instruction can turn out to be group activated. For some it goes against the grain to accept a learning experience which demands that a selected “instructor” spend 50% of his/her time, listening. If they can be located and enlisted TWO course guides (a far more accurate term than instructors) stimulate a better refresher than a single guide, however skilled in Devil's Advocacy. When there are two openly differing standpoints, everyone can feel closer to one than to the other and consequently more relaxed in expressing a personal slant on the subject. The ideal selection for a refresher would be to find persons with contrasting views on the subject matter, sympathetic to each other's idiosyncrasies and mutually content to let the week roll along under loose reins. Refresher guides need to be articulate and good humored enough to put up with constant and repeated interruptions. It takes a deal of dedication and self-control. Not every gifted member of AIC has the intestinal fortitude to place him/herself in such a vulnerable position. Pinning down a fine pair of guides for a refresher course is the toughest assignment for liaison and the specialty group involved. Post facto, guides may have shed 10–15 pounds but they claim they had the time of their lives.
Selection of the host site has practical stipulations. Reaching the site should be reasonably easy; available housing and food should be reasonably low cost; the distance between the housing and the laboratory theatre, minimal; and the usefulness of the site in facilitating demonstrations and application of theory and techniques carefully weighed. Not all factors will be equally satisfactory, so the selection is a wise compromise. A surprising number of museums offered themselves as hosts to refreshers even before the pilot courses, funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 1982, proved the event beneficial to a hosting museum. Without exception the site hosts selected have been welcoming, generous and appreciative. No site host is expected to be out of pocket for reason of a refresher. Refresher oriented expenses are part of anticipated costs and promptly paid. Undeniably all site hosts have taken extra trouble to accommodate their refresher guests for the designated week and condoned the interuption in routine laboratory performances. Housing arrangements have yet to attain a faultless state, but they improve with each attempt, as do the general mechanics of implementation.
The idea for a refresher originates within an AIC Specialty Group. The chair of the group designates a liaison and he, she or they select the subject matter, site, course guides, time period and course membership. Mailings, insurances, billings and fee payments, all financial matters directly related to the function of the refresher are handled for the Specialty Group by the Cooperstown office of FAIC. FAIC collects all fees, assumes responsibility for all costs as these are authorized. Refreshers are almost self-supporting but not quite. FAIC contributes for the coffee breaks, one cocktail party, menu-upgrading for the banquet, etc. The heavy work load still falls on the liaison, and this is where previous experience counts so much, avoiding unnecessary troubles and waste of time. There may well be a mystique in refreshers but the key to their success is very factual: a dedicated liaison.
The fee for refresher attendance is $200 for the week long course. This still leaves a participant with the cost of travel, housing and food, not to mention absence from work. The expenses mount up. For this reason locating low cost housing and food are a serious must; these should be available for those who want them. Course guides receive a fee of $500 for their week's stint plus travel and FAIC paid food and housing in the same accommodations open to the participants. Liaison is unpaid, overworked and receives the course for free plus travel and the same housing and food as the guides at FAIC expense. The budget is tight and the balance between income from fees and total expenses is constantly kept in check. The over-run is not excessive and a small residue remains from the initial Mellon Grant, restricted to refresher use only.
The amount of pre-refresher preparation varies and is optional. Liaison and course guides meet for general discussion (in addition to their previous communications) some 36–48 hours ahead, on the weekend before it all starts. They draw up a day schedule to include demonstrations and explanations already anticipated. This is read to the course members on the first day and modified by their approval, disapproval and specific preferences. It is important that either one or all three of the responsible overseers (course guides and liaison) have competence not only in stimulating discussion but also in controlling its excesses. For what takes place develops its own momentum and may or may not fit the proposed agenda. Interestingly and fortunately, course members soon serve as their own prods and levellers. The rituals of courtesy are reborn in a refresher course.
One criticism of refreshers, which comes from those who have never as yet attended one, is that travel costs for participants could be diminished were these courses placed at periods either directly before or directly after annual meetings and located in the same area. Quite aside from the obvious difficulties in finding inexpensive housing and appropriate laboratory facilities at predetermined locations, the timing seems hardly salutary. Who after finishing the emotional drain of a refresher would be able to face the thought of attending sessions at an annual meeting? And who would be willing after the wear and tear of a convention to explore the concentrated opportunities of a refresher? The savings in travel not withstanding, refreshers deserve a spot of their own. They can hardly be viewed as a substitute for a sportengaged or spectator sport type vacation but they do seem to serve an uplifting as well as an upgrading personal function. As of now, no past refresher participant has indicated placement as a separate entity was not warranted and many of them have announced their set determination to save enough money so they can be part of another refresher. The notion that there may be many more refreshers to come and that these are anticipated with pleasure by the old hands is warmly welcomed by the FAIC.