Dr. Miriam Clavir
Dr. Miriam Clavir, Recipient of the 2023 CAPC Award of Distinction
Miriam was a member of CAPC with specializations in ethnographic and archaeological objects from 1987 until her retirement from conservation in 2015. Her contributions to CAPC, the conservation community in Canada, and the conservation field internationally have been tremendous.
Below is a summary of the interview conducted by Emma Griffiths, recipient of the 2023 CAPC Emerging Conservator Grant. During the interview, Miriam discusses her path to conservation, her experience being part of the first cohort of the Art Conservation Program at Queens, her work as a conservator as well as her research and writing. Emma in turn shares her experience working with industrial heritage, which leads to discussing the value of object use versus static presence in a collection and the importance of developing active listening as conservators.
Emma Griffiths: Your first degree was in anthropology, correct? How did you move from anthropology to conservation?
Miriam Clavir: I grew up within walking distance of the ROM so my answer to your question begins there. Museums and galleries were my introduction to individuals and peoples’, visions and cultures from around the world. Also to natural history, from geology to forms of life. It broadened my own world and understanding immeasurably, and so for my BA I studied anthropology and archaeology at the University of Toronto. I was able to participate in field archaeology as well as courses, and through these and the extraordinarily lucky coincidence of someone leaving their job the month I graduated in 1969, I was able to get a junior position at the ROM in the Ontario Archaeology Department. Across the hall was conservation, and I was smitten. When the youngest person in that department left to study textiles abroad I was able to begin what became a life-long absorption with conservation.
I’m very appreciative of the good fortune and chances I’ve had on this journey. To add to what I’ve been talking about, this was also the time period that CCI and Parks Canada were setting up their conservation labs – one context being a good economy that included money for and a recognition of the importance of heritage - so on the near horizon was the prospect of very interesting jobs in the field, and of course the opening of the Queen’s program.
EG: Did you have any previous training in art, chemistry or other? Were those things that you had to pick up as you went along once you made the transition?
MC: I had one fun course in chemistry at the American program when it was still at Cooperstown, not Buffalo. It was a month-long summer course under the Kecks (Caroline and Sheldon Keck), with chemistry taught by Don Sebera. Cooperstown was great. The year I worked in Ottawa I took an evening course in general chemistry at Carleton, hoping to get into CCI or Parks. I used to skate up the canal to Carleton. I enjoyed this much more than the course.
Also, when I was growing up, I was always doing what I’ll call “arts and crafts”, through classes or just having opportunities, and had a real interest in how things were made. Even as a kid I wanted to go to museums, and I went to the Saturday Morning Club at the ROM and loved it.
EG: It was very similar for myself, growing up I always wanted to work in museums and galleries and finally made the transition at that later point in life. But it's the initial interest that really sparks it off. But you did end up going to Queens to do the Master of Art conservation program?
MC: Again, I was very fortunate. After my job at the ROM I was able to get a job at Parks Canada and I’d been there for a year when the Queen’s program started, and they wanted to help the University have a full class of 12, the number in that first year. This is my understanding, I’m sure there was a lot more to the discussions. I was the only person at Parks with enough formal qualifications, and they accepted the course at Carleton and the one month at Cooperstown, I guess because it had been part of a conservation program. Parks Canada said, well you can go to Queens for two years as long as you promise to work for us for four years afterwards. I thought I’m so lucky, a guaranteed job when I graduate!
EG: Can you tell me a little bit more about your experience at Queens? How was it being in the first cohort? It must have been such an exciting experience.
MC: We were in the basement of another building because the one for art conservation wasn’t completed yet. It'll be 50 years since the program has been in existence now, and I gather the program may temporarily have to go into another building again while they’re constructing a new one for conservation.
Things were so different then. The digital universe didn't exist, and things were less structured I think because everybody was just trying to find their way, both students and instructors, to make the program grow and be really good.
Being the first class we formed a very close cohort. And maybe you did too, although the pandemic couldn’t have helped that. At the same time, things may well have been looser for us since these were only the first and second years for the courses. Today, would 6 people skip an hour of the objects lab to go to a skating class? The instructors didn’t like this at all, but they weren’t the most rule-bound either. I remember Henry Hodges singing All Things Bright and Beautiful in the objects lab.
EG: It's so exciting to be part of it. I do remember having conversations with Patricia Smithen, the head of the program and paintings conservation, she was talking about having to develop photographs and whereas now we have the digital and it just must have been so different back then.
MC: All the instruments ... even X-rays were a big thing. We had lectures in analysis but especially in first year we didn't use or particularly have access to equipment unless you were attached to the science stream.
EG: They have a lot of equipment now, it’s incredible. They've received a lot of donations from the Bader Foundation for it. It sounds like it was quite a smooth transition from anthropology into conservation, it was like a very well-laid path for you. Where did you end up going for your internships?
MC: The first one was at the museum in Victoria, at that point the BC Provincial Museum. And the second one was in Hawaii under Tony Werner. Again, I was so fortunate.
EG: What kind of projects did you work on in Hawaii?
MC: Treatments were mainly done in the Pacific Regional Conservation Center at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, and most of the projects were works from Hawaii and Polynesia. There were people who came from this large area to learn collections conservation, for example, a man from the Solomon Islands, and I’m sorry I can’t remember his name but I believe he became the director of a museum there. He was working on a model boat from his area with various sails, and the ropes were completely tangled up and I thought my God, how is he ever going to be able to undo that mess, but he was so skillful.
EG: Can you talk a little bit about this job at Parks Canada, what kind of work did you do when you returned? Was it archeological?
MC: Yes it was. For National Historic Sites, part of Parks Canada. When I graduated with my MAC I was told to go to one of Parks’ new regional labs -they’ve unfortunately been dismantled now and the collections centralized rather than remaining in their regions - and I asked if I could go to Quebec City. But even in that year in Ottawa, I was able to be part of the dig at Les Vieilles Forges du Saint-Maurice in Trois-Rivières. All the material we worked on in Quebec City was from historic sites and mainly excavations, whether they were Les Forges, Quebec City or other locations like Fort Chambly.
The regional labs were quite new and because everybody was new and it was a small group of people, Collections Management was right beside Conservation and Interpretation. Researchers and historians, everybody was interacting – your colleagues weren't just in conservation.
EG: I've had the great pleasure of doing my first internship with Dee Stubbs Lee and she mentioned that she had done an internship with you previously and had a copy of your book Preserving What is Valued on her bookshelf. It’s a fantastic book and she told me that it's based on your PhD in museum studies thesis. Can you tell me a little bit about how that came to be and what the process was like for writing that book?
MC: Thanks for your kind words, Emma. The book began a few years after I’d begun working at the Museum of Anthropology. The museum got a request from Gloria Cranmer Webster in Alert Bay to borrow older pieces from MOA’s permanent collection to be used during a potlatch. Gloria had worked with the museum and the director Michael Ames before, and had been instrumental in getting material repatriated from a number of museums to be able to create the U’mista Cultural Center and Museum in Alert Bay. A wonderful woman, very strong and very committed to her Kwakwaka’wakw community.
The pieces she asked to borrow had been legally acquired by MOA, according to Canadian law anyway. But at a potlatch, they would be in a very non-conservation environment—danced in front of a fire, for example! MOA’s director, who liked to play devil's advocate, asked me to sign the loan forms that said, yes, these objects can be worn and danced and be near a fire. It got me thinking: am I going to be drummed out of the conservation profession by signing the loan forms? Or am I going to be drummed out of my museum job if I don't sign them? And that was instrumental in making me think about what conservators consider ethical and important and what First Nations people consider ethical and important. That's what started me asking questions, doing research that became a doctoral thesis at the University of Leicester, and later the book. Leicester has a research degree, which meant that I only needed to be in the UK in person once a year. I was mid-career, and being able to do a doctorate this way meant I could keep working. I did my research over a number of years, and UBC staff were allowed a year of study leave, so I was able to write the thesis over 3 one-semester leaves from MOA. I revised it for the book for UBC Press.
I am really grateful that so many First Nations people let me ask questions and record what they said about heritage preservation. Pursuing my questions also meant going to a philosophy professor to ask about ethics, to a lawyer to tell me about repatriation’s legal status, to Indigenous and non-Indigenous curators and others working in the cultural sector, to other conservators to find out what they and their museums were doing, including Indigenous conservators in New Zealand where the late, great Mina McKenzie had created opportunities for Maori to train as professional conservators, and even to a vintage car enthusiast about the ethics of racing vintage cars. Etc. The research was so exciting, it gave me so much to think about.
EG: These discussions are becoming more prevalent, and people are talking about it a lot more. Repatriation policies are becoming more and more common in museums. But I'm assuming back then it wasn't, so it must have been quite an interesting process to have these conversations with people. I feel like you've had a big part to play in that.
MC: You’re right, conservators weren't talking about repatriation very much then, but that depended on which museum you were in. Some worked at museums or in conservation centres where requests were coming in for repatriation. In the 1970s for example, and perhaps earlier, the Zuni were asking for the repatriation of pieces that had come up for sale in art auctions, and curators and museum directors got similar requests, but very few museums accepted repatriation as something they wanted to do. Then around 1990 NAGPRA came in in the United States, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. So repatriation there often centred on grave materials, not just human remains, but “grave goods” as they were called.
I don't know what parts of my book you remember, but in 1986, Gloria Cranmer Webster, myself and two curators from MOA went to a symposium that CCI had organized. Gloria talked about repatriation and those of us from MOA talked about what we were doing to facilitate loans, at least, for use. Then this person from a decorative arts museum questioned us, and the gist of what he said was that he was appalled at what we were doing. He would never let their ceramics collection be used, for instance. Those weren't his exact words, and I don’t have CCI’s publication at hand but that was really the atmosphere at the time.
In the context in which I worked and the way MOA was organized, we were each a “department” of one at the time, so we had an interaction that was less hierarchical. We were on the academic model where at a meeting and you’re sitting around a table, everybody from each specialty ostensibly has an equal voice, and we talked back and forth more than I think happens in a top-down style.
EG: How does it make you feel about your achievements as a conservator receiving the CAPC Award of Distinction now after receiving the Mervyn Ruggles award? It must be a great feeling to know that the work that you've done is so meaningful and has touched so many people.
MC: It is. It's a great honor and it's extremely gratifying to know that my work's been meaningful. I’m very pleased as well that my work has had an influence in the museum world, not only in the conservation profession. I think conservation has a better fit in certain museums because it supports the direction the museum is going in and adapting to community requests including ceremonial and other appropriate active use of objects.
EG: Do you think the steps being taken by conservation and museum staff in general are enough? What else could be done to support the preservation of these communities and these cultures?
MC: Well, you know, here I really feel that I'm out of touch with what’s going on today. It's been over a decade since I gave a conference paper and even longer since I retired from my daily work at MOA. I don’t know for example how conservators are balancing their workload in the lab with just having enough time to talk to people. Are conservators involved in a way that's part of a team, or not. Other than MOA, I don't know what's going on at other museums.
EG: Is there a specific technique or an object that really stood out for you as being very rewarding or challenging to work on?
MC: I can’t say one object in particular but over the years there's been a number of them that presented challenges even if some were more minor. At Parks Canada in Québec, there was a Victorian rubber bathing shoe with the mud inside preserving the imprint of the textile lining. At MOA when I worked there the RH could fluctuate too much, and affected even the large wooden sculptures if they were indoor works, and as well, there was making sure no further damage of any kind happened to the totem poles especially where the wood was very fragile and punky. I mentioned Conservation was essentially a department of one conservator then, but in addition, I had 4 terrific Volunteer Associates, and often one or occasionally 2 interns funded by the federal Museum Assistance Programs, and I’m still extremely grateful for all of that.
There was a lot of preventive conservation needed in the MOA building. Parts of the roof leaked, for example, but that’s been fixed with the renovation that was done after I’d left. Luckily collections management worked as well on preventive conservation, so to be honest, I have to say I didn't have time for much bench work, especially in the semester I was teaching. Plus, there were many things Conservation was involved in outside of treatments and preventive conservation. In addition to the nine-to-five job, MOA staff did public evening programs such as a popular conservation and curatorial identification clinic once a month, I wrote grants, and we researched how to improve what MOA then called Visible Storage …. Let me add that, because of the way MOA saw its mission and structure, I didn’t feel pigeonholed. It was a creative environment.
EG: I think a lot of people don't understand the many different hats that conservators have to wear. As you said, that includes teaching as well. Can you talk a little bit about your teaching style and your approach to working with interns?
MC: Well, you'll have to ask the interns themselves how my style was! The teaching, classes and labs, maybe because of the time period, were more structured than I would do today. I mainly lectured – topics such as the nature of materials, how they deteriorate, what preventive measures you can take and when you need to call a conservator, the difference between restoration and conservation . . ..
Rather than mainly formal lectures, today I’d teach more through back-and-forth conversations. But these conversations did develop when I taught at MOA, the more the classes considered the broader, underlying questions such as what are we preserving, why, for whom, and how. There's so much content in conservation, it was of real interest to me, and I was hoping that it would be of interest to the students. I think enthusiasm for the subject is important.
EG: The difference between conservation and restoration is an interesting discussion. I'm working with AOC Archaeology, which is a commercial company, and they're currently working on the conservation contract for 14 or so different industrial sites around Scotland. I’m working with industrial collections and restoration is definitely more common, I would say. None of the sites have a conservator on staff, but they received funding for specific conservation projects. It’s been interesting to work with volunteers at museums and come to grips with their understanding of the difference between conservation and restoration. It's not always as easy to explain as I would hope.
MC: That’s really true. And these are volunteers who worked as mechanics, say, and they know how to do things that we never would have known how to do and they have a real investment in the object. From their point of view, in many cases, the machine should work again. It's that whole question of use versus static: where does the meaning of the object lie? Is it in use or is best displayed in a museum?
EG: It's not something I thought about a lot before working with industrial collections, especially when, like you say, you're working with people who have engineering backgrounds. I'm working with like a lot of different museums at the moment like railway or mining museums, and there's no substitution for the knowledge that they have but it's tricky sometimes to have this conversation with them now that the object is part of this collection, and no longer the same as when they were working on them.
MC: I wonder is it also difficult because you're a young woman and these may be older men?
EG: I think that definitely does come into play sometimes. But conservation is such a female driven profession now.
MC: Now, but it didn't used to be. Before it became formalized and the conservation schools started, it was very male directed and mainly it was restorers. But there were people like Gettens and Stout, Plenderleith and Werner and then the next generation of men who were doing good, interesting work. I think IIC started only in the 1950s, that's not all that long ago, so, I still see conservation as a bit of a new profession certainly in terms of museums themselves.
But talking about having to explain to people that now this object is in a collection, and it can’t be treated the same way as you would to get it functioning. That’s what First Nations people have been saying to us: what do you mean it's part of a collection? These are our belongings, we want them to be what we want them to be, and we have the cultural rights to say this and to have them back, too. It’s one step even further delving into, “wait a minute, why is it part of a collection?” For instance, what do these guys working in industrial museums want in terms of the final situation for the object?
Anyway, you know it's an interesting question to find the answers to, and then the museum that has the collection, what direction are they taking the museum in? Are they giving up everything for public programs and for public entertainment?
EG: It goes down to the significance of the object which is not always an easy thing to pin down. These objects come into collections and you have to preserve the original material. Well, what's original? Is it when it came out of the factory? With industrial objects, parts get changed so often throughout their life. You have the whole broom let’s say but with two new handles and three new heads. At what point in its life does it stop being original?
MC: This is what evolved for me as important to my work in conservation, asking these questions and trying to see all the different aspects that play into how you resolve the question, if it can even be resolved.
EG: There’s definitely a skill to having those conversations and making sure that each party feels like they've been heard and understood. I wouldn’t say that's probably not a skill that everybody has. You've achieved so much in this area and you must have very good mediation skills.
MC: Again, you'd have to ask the people I was talking to what they felt about it. But I wish that more workshops were offered in conservation programs about this kind of thing, all the different kinds of interactions with people, even how to do a sound bite in an interview. I really wish conservators had more chances to develop the skills, including emotional, for interacting well with people, especially those who disagree with you, as well as with collections.
I don't know about you, but I’m somebody who was very interested in things, in objects, not people particularly. We don’t go into this profession because we want to focus on people but I think people skills are really important. I'm not sure I actually have them but thank you.
EG: The appeal of working in a lab by yourself doesn't always come with the people skills that are more and more necessary. For my internship, I am doing treatments while something is on display and I have to be conversing with the public. There is more and more of a spotlight on conservation.
MC: But then being able to do that, to have or gain the confidence of being able to do that, is great.
EG: Do you have any advice for people like myself moving into the profession regarding research? Sometimes it feels a bit overwhelming deciding on what things are relevant for articles. Did you find that you would start out with the intention of writing something to publish or did it just kind of evolve as a result of the work that you were doing and finding it was important for people to know about it?
MC: Well some of it was the context. In a university museum publishing was a good thing, you were always supported if you published. As you know, I love writing and that gave me a lot of enjoyment. I was able to sit down and write and organize my thoughts as something I liked doing.
Then there was also the context of people disputing what museums were doing and what conservation should be doing within the museum professions. Well, there was a conflict from the beginning. Around 1967, when Canada's centenary was celebrated, the arts became a big thing and the major museums were given money and basically told that they should have conservators if they were still to be considered professional museums and continue getting grants. These conservators came and they were thought of as just standing in the way of what the directors and curators wanted to do, and having stuffy and uncompromising ideas that must be followed. I gave you the example of the decorative arts person earlier, because conservation covers so many different fields and as you know they aren't the same. Industrial collections and fine art collections have different considerations!
For a museum with a collection like MOA’s, there was the larger context of Canada’s relationship with its Indigenous peoples. I started at MOA in 1980, and in 1982, when the Constitution was patriated, one big question was whether First Nations rights would be enshrined in the Constitution. This affected museums and in a sense affected me personally, what I thought about this; again, it got me questioning my work in the larger context.
All of these things came together, which is why I ended up being able to research and publish so much.
EG: This view of conservators as people who stood in the way said no is something that came up in the program, about working with exhibitions specifically. In a lecture with Patricia it was said to “pick your battles” and to not always be the person who says no and puts their foot down because people will find a way to go around you if there's something that they want to achieve. Do you feel like towards the end of your career that kind of feeling towards conservators has changed a little?
MC: I think it depends very much on the people and the museum's outlook. The people, both the conservators and whoever they are working with, like exhibit designers. I think it might also depend on whether the conservator is from public practice in a museum or gallery, or in private practice. Because the private practice people I think might often feel that they don't have the same leeway. They have to be thought of in the world outside of conservation as at the highest level, technically and ethically, to maintain the viability of their business, and therefore they might need to define more strictly what’s best conservation practice. Are they able to “pick their battles” as much? I’d be interested to hear from CAPC members.
EG: I really wanted to talk to you about your fictional literary work because it's so interesting and I'm so excited to read some of them. What prompted you to move into writing fictional conservation literature?
MC: I started writing fiction only when I retired from my daily job. I guess I can joke that I’d heard it said, when you stop working and retire, there's always somebody you'd like to kill (laughs). I sincerely hope that’s metaphorical. However, in conservation there are lots of real ways to kill people, I mean just look at the chemical cupboard (laughs). And one of the old adages in writing is to write what you know. In addition to the mystery novels I've had about a dozen short stories published in literary magazines, and with those also I started out writing about museums or museum situations, but then it went on from there.
EG: Is there anything else that you would like to add or anything else that you would like to talk about, or do you have any final words of wisdom for people who are, you know, starting out in their careers?
MC: Well, to maintain your curiosity about everything, and when a work situation comes that touches you in some way, go into it, think about it, look at it, talk to people. It’s not just a job, thinking broadly and “active” listening are really important. You want to really listen to other points of view because often your mind is already forming your opinion. Active listening is not just a buzzword, it’s respectful listening, and even if it doesn’t come easily, it's really important as something to be aware of and try to practice.
Also, be careful of hierarchies, in my view. If you're working with volunteers but you're being paid, or you're the conservator and you’re in charge of a project where others don’t have that background, it doesn't mean that they're any less knowledgeable than you - they have a different kind of knowledge. Also, it doesn't necessarily mean that a curator or the director is “more” than you are, even if they have more power.