Meet a Conservator—Michelle Berry

National News Categories: 
Publish date: 
30 May 2019

Michelle Berry at Mawson's Huts, photograph by David Killick

What first attracted you to conservation as a profession and how did you get started in the field?
It was a bit of complicated road but when I was very young I discovered a book in the library on ancient Egypt and was fascinated by it. I think I was the only person who ever borrowed it but I decided from that moment that I wanted to be an Egyptologist or archaeologist. At 15 I started volunteering at Auckland Museum over the school holidays. The first job they gave me when I started involved handing me a broom, dust pan and can of fly spray and locking me in the Ethnographic Store. My instructions were to kill any insects and sweep up. But it was there that I met Leo Cappell, the Conservator/Preparator at the time. Leo was a lovely and fascinating man, a survivor of the Holocaust and a polymath. He asked me if I wanted to work with him rather than in the storage area and I volunteered with him each school holidays until my twenties.  After a couple of years travelling I moved to Perth in Western Australia and started volunteering at the Museum of Western Australia Conservation Department where I met Ian McLeod and the other conservators who encouraged me to apply to study conservation at the University of Canberra.

Can you think of any experience in your career that has taught you a lot about conservation or that has changed how you approach your work?
It was a privilege to work in the labs at the Maritime Museum of Western Australia. It gave me the confidence to do long term, slow, complex treatments on diverse materials affected by the marine environment. When, after graduation, I was working full time in the labs at Museum Victoria I used to spend my vacations working on an archaeological site, Dakhleh Oasis, in the western Egyptian desert with Dr. Colin Hope of Monash University. I did this for 12 seasons. It was a tremendous contrast between my lab work at Museum Victoria and the vagaries of ‘dig work’ at Dakhleh Oasis. The latter taught me the importance of adaptability and pragmatism, which has also been useful when working in the extreme environment and isolation of Antarctica on the conservation of Mawson’s Huts.

Do you have a favourite object or material you've worked on?
The object I spent a lot of time working on during my visits to Dakhleh Oasis remains my favourite. It was a large Egyptian/Roman mud brick vaulted shrine constructed in the 2nd century BC and lined with wall paintings. The roof had fallen in and the painted plaster and mud components lay in fragments on the floor of the shrine. But it had been beautifully painted with panels of colour, buildings and architectural features, solemn processions of priests and gods, with an image of Isis at the very top. I, as well as other conservators and Egyptologists, pieced the fragments of plaster together over many hundreds of hours to reveal the complexity of the wall paintings.

What's the one thing you wish more people knew about conservation and conservators?
The ethical and technical complexity of the work that we do.

Has conservation taught you any skills or lessons that you use in other areas of your life?
That’s tricky! My work as a conservator in remote places has taught me a lot about human nature, the environment, and working collaboratively.

Do you have any hot tips for people at home who are wanting to care for the materials around them?
Just be practical. Protect them from light, water, fire and pests. Keep it simple.

Can you give us a brief summary of your career and what you are doing now?
I have in addition to what I have already mentioned spent time doing marine archaeology in Thailand. I worked for many years as a senior object conservator at Museum Victoria. In 2009 I moved to Hobart and established my own business working for institutions such as the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, MONA and the Australian Antarctic Division. I also work as the Secretariat for the AICCM.