Conservation and communication

Recently Tom blogged about the prospect of the National Trust’s massive investment into digital technologies, including the web. Electric Acorns is a great new blog started by a an NT employee and devoted to peeling back some of the layers of the great institution in an effort to allow the public and fellow professionals a better insight into all the work the Trust does (see his comment below).

Institutions involved with promoting, undertaking or advising on the conservation of historic environments and artefacts are not great at communicating their work. I often wonder, if they were, whether the tensions between access and preservation could be better ‘managed’ (to use a phrase en vogue) but at the very least, better understood by the wider public, and whether funders and politicians would regard conservation as being a cultural activity of the highest value to society and therefore less willing to withdraw or withold support (see my post on the Textile Conservation Centre’s closure).

Interest in history, the past and the environment has never been more keen than it is now. Neither has it been more easy to have your say in front of a global audience with the internet revolution. Why aren’t more institutions involved with conservation adopting open and honest communication with the public through the web in the form of blogs, web forums, podcasts and more? Matthew of Electric Acorns is taking a step forward for his organisation (I do hope they appreciate it). What is everyone else doing? Here’s a short survey.

ICOMOS-UK (International Council on Monuments and Sites UK)

ICOMOS-UK is one of the organisations I am currently working for. They hired me for a period of 7 months, part-time, to take a hold of their web projects: a redeveloped website that would a) raise the profile of the organisation in the UK and internationally and b) provide an information service on international conservation and heritage news relating to cultural historic environments, especially World Heritage Sites: ICOMOS is UNESCO‘s official adviser on cultural world heritage. The second web project was to set up a members-only discussion network (a collection of web fora) where people could discuss and debate various issues relating to the wide remit of ICOMOS and ICOMOS-UK.

Desired result: That committee members and the small staff of the Secretariat will continue to keep up the information service blog on a regular basis with honest, wide-ranging and newsworthy stories, predominantly from UK and international members. They will present themselves as a genuinely independent and leading voice for world and UK conservation and heritage.

A likely result: For this to work the culture within the organisation needs to change, to focus more on providing information to the public and fellow professionals than on corporatising its image and standing apart from its sister organisations. It is this aspect that is, always, the hardest to change but is also the most important. I am no so confident this will happen as a result of my intervention in the organisation. If the concept of harnessing the power of the web is simply endorsed, rather than genuinely understood and adopted, and high-quality information is not disseminated via the blog, the service will not attract interest, few people will subscribe and the organisation will not be taken seriously as a leading voice for world and UK conservation and heritage.

English Heritage

If you search for ‘English heritage blog’ in Google, the first result you get is: Your Place or Mine, a blog and podcasts related to a two-day conference back in November 2006, co-organised with the National Trust. Photos of the event were even put on flickr. For a conference aimed at ‘Engaging New Audiences with Heritage’ not much seems to have happened since. The flurry of comments on the blog posts show that people are interested in how such organisations work, what they do and how it affects them. Perhaps this is one small step towards a change in attitude?

So what’s happened since November 2006? Not a lot (that is visible to me). But look at this blog post by the Birmingham Post on the listing of Birmingham Central Library with subsequent comments. This should be on EH’s website. Wider participation would increase understanding in EH’s philosophy, surely?

Historic Scotland

The first thing Historic Scotland says about itself on its website is that they are an executive agency of the Scottish Government followed by highly corporatised sections on procurement, freedom of information and sponsorship. Meanwhile, a rather crafty but highly visible blog called Independent
Republic of the Canongate
aims to tell the “stories behind the PR spin of the developers, the architects, politicians and council officials” in a bid to save the historic fabric of the Old Town of Edinburgh (part of Edinburgh’s World Heritage Site) from insensitive development. A search on Historic Scotland’s website for information about the inquiries into the planning and development of these sites reveals little (even if information is tucked away somewhere). Perhaps HS’s own cause would have been helped with a bit of honest blogging, which needn’t compromise confidentiality or sensitivity.

Natural History Museum

Getting a little tired now so have tried a simple Google search on ‘conservation blog’. To my great and pleasant surprise I found this blog, the NHM’s Antarctic Conservation Blog. It is being written by members of the 2008 Antarctic conservation winter team and describes the really very fascinating conservation work done on objects from the explorer’s hut left behind by Ernest Shackleton in 1908, complete with object record photography. It is written honestly and candidly.

This will surely rank as one of the most historically interesting museum/conservation blogs in future years? A great public advertisement for the cultural value of conservation.

This is but a random and quick sample. I am on the look out for more good examples but I maintain that if only the organisations we worked for, and cared for, took their work to the public and shared it with their fellow professionals just a little bit more openly, the public worth of conservation as a cultural activity in its own right would be better appreciated and therefore more people would stand up for our causes when we need them to.

*I should add that my interest is in the conservation of cultural artefacts, landscapes and sites, rather than the conservation of natural resources and environment.