Observations from the “Gels in Conservation” conference (London, October 2017): Part 1

This post is the first in a six-part series by member and former MRCG officer Jodie Utter, the Senior Conservator of Works on Paper at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. Jodie writes about her experience at an international conference on the use of gels in conservation, including her takeaways and links to videos of many of the presentations on current research in this area. Stay tuned– new parts will be published twice per week!


A few months have passed since I attended the London three-day conference “Gels in Conservation” co-hosted by the Tate and IAP (International Academic Projects, Ltd), better known as James (Jim) Black. You will know him from Archetype Publications; he’s the one who always remembers you.

1. conference logo

The conference was the brainchild of Jim Black and Richard Wolbers, hatched over drinks and Indian food a few years back. They posed the idea, “wouldn’t it be great if we got all the people together working in gels? Scientists, conservators, students, etc., and shared what we know, or were working on in gels?” Apparently they were right, they weren’t they only ones who thought it was a great idea. More than 550 attendees from 39 countries attended the three-day conference. For me, and judging from fellow attendee’s responses, I can tell you it sure felt like a roaring success.

2. gels conference audience

It was one of the most thoughtfully arranged symposiums I’ve ever attended. I suspect Jim Black may well be a genius and I hope other program organizers take note. There were three sessions each day, and each session started off with two or three talks about 25 or 30 minutes in length followed by several 10-minute talks. It kept things fresh and helped avoid listening fatigue. For the most part the 10-minute talks were just as informative as the longer format. At the end of each session the presenters had a panel Q&A with the audience. This gave people a chance to clarify and presenters an opportunity to add detail.

The conference was filmed/recorded, so take heart even if you didn’t get one of the sought-after tickets: you can still virtually attend, albeit slightly after the fact. Having the publication at the conference was brilliant. I can’t emphasize enough how excellent the publication is. It includes the papers from the presentations and the posters with great images. It was very helpful to listen to a talk then be able to refer to the paper immediately. Over the course of three days, some 41 authors presented research, techniques and ideas. Each day the talks were grouped together loosely by theme such as polysaccharide gel systems, which included agars, gellan gum and methyl cellulose, often compared or alone, sometimes with additives like enzymes or chelators. Day two, polysaccharide and polyacrylic gel systems, which included solvent gels, such as pemulen, and the new wave of solvents, silicone solvents. And finally, day three was entitled Novel and Multi gel treatment. Many speakers talked about trying to utilize less toxic materials as an alternative to “traditional” organic and aromatic solvents, moving toward greener alternatives. Authors shared their successes and failures, both being very informative. Many attendees, me included remarked that they really enjoyed the multi-discipline approach, learning what textile conservators and easel painting conservators are doing with the same sort of materials. It was very inspiring and informative.

The overall tone of the conference was one of hopeful optimism and desire for more research and development. Richard Wolbers spoke several times, first as the key note speaker and later as collaborator for many of the authors. He emphasized the need for conservators to look to other industries for potential products, greener or less toxic than what we use now, and to know the materials well enough to tailor them to our own specific needs for each specific treatment challenge. I came away inspired and intrigued. In this and the companion posts coming soon, I hope I can convey some of what I learned and inspire you to obtain the publication and start reading. I will end with my favorite slide of the conference:

3. Your Plan vs Reality

Jodie’s favorite slide: what a research journey really looks like.

This blog series is a result of receiving the FAIC Carolyn Horton grant to help me attend the conference. I would like to gratefully acknowledge the FAIC for helping make it possible for me to attend this important conference.

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