Newsletter Issue Number:
AICCM National Newsletter No 162 December 2023
Kay Söderlund

Following on from the recommendations in the 1975 Piggot report, Colin Pearson was appointed to develop and run the first conservation training program in Australia. He arrived in Canberra in December 1977 and the first intake of students was in 1978—for both a two-year associate diploma and a two-year master’s degree.

In 1979 I was back in Perth after several years in Europe and had decided I wanted to be a fine bookbinder. Unfortunately I was too old (at 25!) and a female, so I couldn’t take up an apprenticeship, which was the only way to be trained in bookbinding in Australia. In making enquiries, I was told about a new course in Canberra, which sounded interesting. I applied to the course under ‘mature age’ status (again, at 25!) and was told that Colin Pearson would be coming to Perth to interview applicants. After a few months of hearing nothing, I contacted the CCAE to be told that I had ‘withdrawn’ my application and that Colin had already been to Perth.

I immediately contacted Colin and hassled him sufficiently to be offered a place in the —without the manual dexterity text! I am pretty sure that Colin did not regret his decision.

Upon arrival in Canberra and starting the course I found a world of people just like me, who did not find it strange that I had collected my personal history since I was four. The course was very collegial and felt almost relaxed—studying something that was fascinating and exciting helped. Sometimes, though, it felt like they were developing the lectures as we went along—and it turned out they were!


Colin …


‘No syllabus, we had to devise a syllabus …’


‘So here we were, talk about flying by the seat of your pants. You’d be planning out a lecture the day before for the next day, then giving it.’


‘I think we had an amazing group of students, obviously, because they were really the guinea pigs in this first course because it was really “sucking and seeing” because there was no course in Australia that we could follow.’


[The above quotes were taken from Jan Lyall’s interview with Colin, recorded in 2003, for the Conservation and Preservation in Australia Oral History Project.]


Early lecturers were sought from around the world—mainly from the US.

Bob Morrison—paper

Tom Dixon—paintings

Janet Stone—objects (called ‘ethnographic’)

Josephine Carter—textiles

Colin Pearson—metals


Things did improve and in 1982 the course was re-structured to upgrade the Associate Diploma to a Bachelor of Applied Science in the Conservation of Cultural Materials. I was in the first cohort of four to graduate with that qualification. This upgrade reflected the fact that in those first years the diploma students and master’s students were being taught the same course …

At some stage while I was still an associate diploma student, I remember rebelling against the fact that paintings conservation wasn’t available to us—only to master’s students. To his credit, Colin amended that and we finally were able to study paintings conservation.


Colin …


‘We were actually teaching basically the same stuff in the two courses …’


‘We found that some people in the associate diploma in fact performed better than those in the master’s degrees’


Colin always wanted a three-year degree as he thought two years was too short to properly train a conservator. Internships were seen as an option, but Colin insisted that they were paid internships. The college refused to endorse this, and this was part of the reason the three-year BAppSc was established.

The change to a three-year degree made all the difference. The first 18 months were pretty much theory, plus tastes of all the specialist areas. Then the last 18 months allowed for full immersion in the chosen major and minor specialisation—with a lot of working on objects! It was a fabulous, comprehensive way to study conservation and allowed time to really get into the chosen major, while still having a good understanding of all the other areas of conservation. I still think it is the best course design for teaching conservation.

Staff and students socialised together—parties, baseball and the like. Colin and I were a badminton doubles team in the University competition—with mixed success!

My first ICCM conference was in Adelaide and it was held in a tiny event space in a motel by the beach—with about 25 delegates. I had a wonderful time with my main memory being of Colin running around the pool in a bathrobe, stubbing and breaking his toe.

To study conservation that way, with the leadership of Colin and the collegial approach of students and lecturers, made those three years fly by—and it was so much fun!

I loved my time there, and I have loved being a conservator for over 40 years now!