What first attracted you to conservation as a profession and how did you get started in the field?
I was really interested in archaeology as a child, but ended up with an ‘adult’ job. Something like conservation was always in the back of my mind. The decision to study conservation was crystallised for me when I was working on a dig overseas and the conservator was one of few people that was paid, compared to the many highly qualified archaeologists working as volunteers. I didn’t think I could compete with the archaeologists.
I did have a well-paying job at the time, but I was tired of making tons of money for my boss and not really getting a lot of satisfaction out of the process. I had a friend who was teaching Museum Studies and I spoke to her and lots of conservators about what they did and what advice they had. I cut down my full-time job to 4 days a week and volunteered for a day a week at the ANMM.
Like many of the students in the cohort I was in at Canberra, I got holiday conservation work and then part-time work during my last year. That lead to full-time work at the AWM pretty well as soon as I finished. I think I was particularly lucky as the AWM were in a process in redevelopment and needed staff, so a newbie conservator could get a look-in.
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?
Hmm, hard question, perhaps not a single experience, but working with the collections at Sydney University Museums, which have been going since the 1850’s, I became aware of the consequences of previous treatments and display practices, some of which have permanently changed objects. So I’m always conscious of the possible long-term consequences. There are times also when not treating an object, in the hope that better treatments might come along in the future, is the option I choose.
Do you have a favorite object or material you’ve worked on?
I pretty well always find something interesting in whatever I’m working on. I have a soft spot for beautiful glass. A few years ago I worked on a cartonnage mask that was rather squished and adhered to a Perspex support, it was immensely satisfying to work on.
And then you get those once-in-a-lifetime projects, like conserving the last Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighter that had original paintwork.
What’s the one thing you wish more people knew about conservation and conservators?
That so much of the material culture that we, as a society, values and wants to interact with is accessible due to the work of conservators and other museum professionals. Sometimes, I talk about the “magic fairies” that make things magically appear in museums and galleries without people realising how much work goes into making that happen.
What skills has conservation taught you that you use in other work or areas of your life?
I think the practice of conservation teaches you to think through things, be well-informed, be flexible and look at the bigger picture. Sydney University Museums has rich and varied collections, but we’ve always had to use our staff and resources carefully to both care for the collection and manage exhibition and loan needs. With the development of the new Chau Chak Wing Museum, we have been thinking through our needs as for a new building and what we can expect to achieve with the funds we have.
Do you have any hot tips for people at home who are wanting to care for the materials around them?
I’m a bit of a fan of benign neglect – if something is in a good state in good conditions, leaving it alone can often be an option. Often a lot of damage is done when people try to do the right thing but don’t have good information. It’s nice to be to point someone to an online information sheet that makes caring for personal collections a less daunting task. And maybe we should be encouraging people to ask for advice in casual settings. I’ve had great conversations about caring for collections in social events that have had nothing to do with conservation.
Alayne completed her undergraduate degree last millennium at the University of Canberra. She has worked in several institutions as an objects conservator – the Australian War Memorial (specialising in firearms, edged weapons and Large Technology), the Powerhouse Museum and Museum Victoria (Melbourne Museum, Scienceworks and the Immigration Museum).
She has been at Sydney University Museums for over ten years, looking after IPM and quarantine matters, non-destructive testing as well as exhibitions, loans and general collection care. With preparations for the Chau Chak Wing Museum under, Alayne is involved with the design and specifications of a new museum building and preparing objects for exhibition, and really wishes she could fit more into her day.