Young conservators in charge: Amsterdam hosts 7th edition of successful international student conference

IIC S&ECC 2013 Copenhagen. Image: Mikkel Scharff.

Emerging conservators and conservation students across Europe are looking forward to November, when the city of Amsterdam will host a youth-led conservation conference. At the 7th edition of the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works’ Student and Emerging Conservator Conference (IIC-SECC) from 16 to 18 November, emerging professionals and students will meet to learn, exchange ideas and make connections. EHT sat down with the team behind the conference to find out why this event is such an important happening for emerging conservators and conservator students.

Conferences are often places where seasoned professionals meet up and discuss their work. A place that holds a wealth of information, but all too often young people notice that it is difficult to attend those meetings because they lack financial resources or a supporting network. But what happens when you let young people organise an event meant only for people just entering the field?

An excellent example would be the IIC-SECC, which is organised every two years a by a team of conservation students and emerging professionals. They are of course supported by the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (IIC), but most of the work is done by people like Paula Ogayar Oroz. She is involved in organising the conference as a volunteer, while simultaneously taking part in the Advanced professional programme at the University of Amsterdam after obtaining her Master diploma in Photograph Conservation in 2022.

Opportunity for Youth

IIC-SECC organiser Paula Ogayar Oroz. Image: Courtesy of P. Ogayar Oroz.

“I am not going to lie, it is quite a lot of work”, she laughs. “Luckily, the IIC supports us, and we have two members from past conferences to act as a ‘bridge’. That’s a great help. But for the majority it is our team in Amsterdam who is making sure everything goes well. For example, finding and contacting speakers, organising sessions and making sure people can attend in-person or online. Without them, and especially my co-chair Amelia Hammond, the project would not have happened.”

The meeting in Amsterdam with the theme ‘Testing the Waters’ is not just about research done in the field. “It is not a typical conference, where you invite people to present their research”, says former organiser Adam Klupś. “The key is that these meetings provide a platform for attendees to talk about their concerns and career prospects. As a result, people feel comfortable to ask questions that they were always keen to ask.”

That’s why the sessions are mostly focused on topics relevant to emerging professionals and students. There are four sessions with themes ranging from how to start your career, to ethical questions and communication with the public. Ogayar Oroz: “One of the goals is to help students voice what topics they care about. When you enter the field and you care about a particular topic, but you don’t know anyone who does as well, it can be disheartening. But once you already know some people that care about the same topics as you do, it makes you feel less alone and gives you a bit more confidence to push on.”

Take them seriously

Adam Klupś during the European Cultural Heritage Summit 2023 in Venice. Image: EHT

How do you even come up with such an idea? Klupś, who works in heritage preservation and is a European Heritage Youth Ambassador for 2023, remembers it all started during an IIC Congress in Istanbul in 2010. The first time he joined an international event himself. “One of the informal sessions during the conference was a gathering for students and professionals. The IIC wanted to start a dialogue with young people, and find out from them directly what IIC could do for them. That was when the idea for a youth-led international conference was born.” 

It was a bold idea indeed, but the gamble paid off. “There were no similar initiatives at the time, and thankfully the IIC supported the concept. They said to me and a few others: ‘Well if you think you can make this work, give it a go.’ So, we did.”

The first conference was organised in London 2011 with the help of University College London (UCL), where Klupś was studying at the time. “We invited academics and experts who were concerned with the challenges emerging professionals and students were facing. We created a series of roundtables where the audience was directly involved in the dialogue with the panellists.”

It was a success, with lots of attendees and positive reactions. Klupś continued to be involved in the organising committee of the next two editions in Copenhagen (2013) and Warsaw (2015). “After that, is was time to pass on the baton to others. So that they can learn and experience what it is like to be involved in the planning and running of an international conference.”

For Klupś, the support of the IIC was crucial: “They took us seriously as young professionals and supported our idea from the start.” He adds: “The first IIC-SECC would not have happened without the tremendous advocacy of the conference idea by the then IIC Executive Secretary Graham Voce, and the support of members of the IIC Council Jo Kirby Atkinson, Mikkel Scharff, Velson Horie and Amber Kerr.” In organising the first event in London, the UCL was also key. “We couldn’t have done it without the invaluable help of my university tutor Liz Pye.”

Accessibility is Key

Klupś is pleased the conference is still going strong thirteen years later, even though not everything is the same as in 2011. “You know what is funny? Back in 2011 we were already aware of how important it was to make the event as accessible as possible, so we put a lot of work into ensuring that the conference was live-streamed and giving the online participants an opportunity to ask their questions. Nowadays, it is almost standard that conferences are hybrid. Ten years ago it was not, and very expensive as well. Yet it really contributed to the success and popularity of the conference.”

Already ten years ago IIC S&ECC 2013 Copenhagen made sure to livestream the event, as the camera on the left shows. Image: Mikkel Scharff.

With three conferences under his belt, Klupś knows which questions are asked the most. “Students are very eager to learn how they can translate their degree into a career path. Yet there are many skilled people out there, but how do you show your value to a potential employer?”

Nonetheless, Klupś doesn’t shy away from the harsh reality of finding a job as a young professionals: “If you are ready to work in the conservation sector, you must be prepared to do a certain degree of volunteering. However, there is only so much volunteering that you can do, before your money runs out and you need to start earning a living, which causes many talented professionals to leave conservation. Sometimes attendees struggled with that aspect during conference sessions, which made many of them feel uneasy, but that is the reality.”

That is why Ogayar Oroz and her team keep the emotional part of sessions in the back of their minds: “For example, if a session is about a sensitive topic, you plan extra breaks, or make sure there are people present who can support attendants if they feel overwhelmed.” And it is not just about a future career path: “One session is about ethical questions in difficult times, such as the reality of the working world and preserving heritage during conflicts. People need to feel safe to discuss these things.”

Making Connections

Despite the fact that there is still lots of work to be done before the conference kicks off in November, Ogayar Oroz has good hopes the event will be a success. “I hope that end of the day, people will gain some friends from this. It is vital to make those connections that down the line will allow for new projects and collaborations to start. It helps a great deal when you know a few people, especially at the start of your career.”

The IIC-SECC certainly helped Klupś in finding his way in the professional field. “Working on these events enabled me to develop a range of skills that helped me on my career path such as organising skills and public speaking. At the same time it is so important to build up a network of people that you can freely talk to about your ideas and your career options.”

With IIC-SECC in Amsterdam, the circle is now complete: Klupś was invited as a speaker for one of the sessions on how to engage with the public and other conservation organisations. “Getting involved with the conference certainly helped me to get to where I am today.”

The IIC-SECC titled ‘Testing the Waters’ takes place from 16 to 18 November 2023 in the city of Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Interested students and emerging professionals can attend both in-person and online. To find out more about registration click here. To find out more about the session, click here.

This article was originally published in English. Texts in other languages are AI-translated. To change language: go to the main menu above.