Getting better every day…

I recently spoke to Roger Kneebone, Professor of Surgical Education and Engagement Science in the Department of Surgery and Cancer at Imperial College London. On the face of it, Kneebone teaches surgeons techniques to improve their practice. However, a closer look at his remarkable CV and work (on his webpage) reveals a much wider multi-disciplinary awareness: ‘Much of Roger’s current research focuses on simulation. He leads an unorthodox and creative research group, bringing together clinicians, educationalists, computer scientists, psychologists, social scientists, design engineers and experts from the visual and performing arts.’

A friend who once saw me poring over a small paper repair remarked that I looked like a surgeon in an operating theatre, carefully carrying out a procedure on an unconscious patient. Listening to Prof. Kneebone and his students talk about how they hone their surgical skills, I was compelled to take further the potential connection between the practical skills that drive a surgeon’s scalpel and those that involve a conservator’s knife or bone-folder. As I researched it, one name kept cropping up: Dr K. Anders Ericsson, a Swedish psychologist and professor at the Institute of Cognitive Science at the University of Colorado.

Ericsson’s work piqued my interest because it asks how professional people become good at what they do, what he terms ‘the acquisition of expert performance’. His research is underpinned by the belief that practice, and not just ‘innate talent’, is the principal reason behind expert performance. Ericsson’s research concluded that 10,000 hours is the standard required to achieve expert status in almost everything, from playing golf to becoming a medical surgeon.

I write at a worrying time, when the University of the Arts London are considering closing the only book and paper course based in the UK’s capital. Although we are not all London-centric, having a course here has allowed many practitioners to study and learn, while working in some of the country’s largest museums and libraries and improving their practical skills. Even London’s smaller cultural institutions often have conservation departments with more than one conservator, so expertise can be shared.

As one might imagine, Ericsson’s 10,000-hour standard has been much discussed, and even dismissed by some critics. In practical terms, Ericsson focuses on the notion of ‘practising with a purpose’; and in this context, he sets out four core principles, which could be of interest to practising conservators:1

  1. Any goal must be attainable – ‘no good trying to build castles in the air’
  2. The practitioner’s focus must be on improvement during practice
  3. Immediate feedback from an expert is essential – without it, there is no tracking of progress or awareness of the overall picture
  4. The would-be learner must constantly attempt things slightly out of reach in order to edge forward in proficiency – there is no place for comfort zones in acquiring expert performance

I conducted my own experiment by applying Ericsson’s four principles to the backing removal and lining of a nineteenth-century cycling poster made in Liège, Belgium:

  1. The (attainable) goal was to remove the paper lining with as little damage as possible, given that the paste had created a very strong bond between the back of the object and the lining
  2. I decided to better understand my technique so that I could improve it while I removed the backing. This insight resulted in me making the conscious choice to reduce friction between the back of the object and the lining layer.
  3. While I made these decisions on my own, I took the initiative to ask my manager at the V&A Museum, an expert in paper lining, for feedback immediately after completing the task
  4. Nineteenth-century posters often contain red inks that are very sensitive to water and therefore can only be humidified for a certain length of time before the ink starts to spread. This means I am under pressure and have to be out of my comfort zone in order to complete my work during a short time-frame. I have timed myself and improved my speed so that I can work on larger, less stable works under the necessary restricted time-frames.

This is, of course, but one example, and some of Ericsson’s principles are more easily applied to certain jobs than others.

In the pursuit of achieving ‘expert status’ as book and paper conservators, we have access to various resources on the Internet and elsewhere. Yet I can’t help but feel that we would benefit from a reference library of training videos: conservation practitioners demonstrating a certain technique on a real object, or discrete skills that are explained slowly so they can be copied and/or honed and/or improved on by others – constantly updated and open to discussion by professional practitioners.

Artworks can never be as precious as human beings but they are often financially and culturally very valuable, and to protect them by making the most stringent effort to acquire expert performance – to borrow again from Prof. Ericsson – should be an inherent part of our professional code and everyday practice: an ethical obligation. Surgeons video every medical procedure, so that they can watch afterwards and critique their performance. Perhaps this is an idea we could develop in our profession.

I conclude this post with a time-lapse video of the poster I mention above. Any errors are mine; any improvements are Anders Ericsson’s!


I would like to thank Susan Catcher for her participation in the video and, more generally, for being an excellent teacher and sounding board.

Featured image courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum: E.3317-1932 – Poster by Joesph Per, ‘Cycles Bovy Herstal, advertising bicycles made by Bovy, colour lithograph early 20th century. Copyright Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Melissa Lewis ACR is a conservator at the V&A Museum in London and runs her own company, Modern British Conservation. She can be contacted at:

1. (2016) Ericsson, Anders Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

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