What first attracted you to conservation as a profession and how did you get started in the field?
At high school I was interested in both arts and science. Mum suggested conservation to me – a parent at her school was a conservator at the National Gallery in Canberra, so she knew it was a thing! I did some work experience at the National Archives and I liked that you also got to use your hands, and weren’t sitting in an office all day. Very conveniently, the only course in the Southern Hemisphere at that time was located in Canberra, my home town, at the University of Canberra. So you could say I started in the profession when I was 18!
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?
This might sound a bit silly – but after working at a few different places I noticed that every lab was very strict about how they made their starch paste. They were all different…and they all stuck just fine. So I guess it showed me there’s no one “right” approach to anything. And maybe we don’t need to be quite so precious about a lot of things.
Do you have a favorite object or material you’ve worked on?
It’s hard to go past the letter written by Charlotte Bronte I got to do something extremely minor to at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York!
What’s the one thing you wish more people knew about conservation and conservators?
I’d like it if we could show more people that we’re about enabling access to collections, rather than preventing it. We still have a reputation as heritage cops. Of course I have a secret desire to put everything into a storage facility on an ice planet where no one can mess with anything, but then there’d be no point to us having it at all, would there?
What skills has conservation taught you that you use in other work or areas of your life?
Probably the way you need to think about sequencing and steps (e.g. in a treatment, or a project), and how A has to come before B and will take X weeks and so on. I’ve become very fussy about how data is presented visually (major influence: The visual display of quantitative information, by Edward Tufte). And never to do anything too challenging on a Friday afternoon. But to be honest not all the work stuff comes home – my Mum has remarked on more than one occasion that I am very bad at wrapping presents for someone who had to pass a manual dexterity test to get into uni.
Do you have any hot tips for people at home who are wanting to care for the materials around them?
Avoid putting tape or adhesive on things if you can – e.g. store letters or photos in albums with sleeves. Lots of tapes and adhesives don’t stand the test of time so well. Also, if you have precious stuff stored in your shed, make sure it’s in a well-sealed box and make sure it’s raised at least 10cm off the ground (e.g. chock boxes up on wooden blocks, or put them on shelving units). If there’s a leak, anything standing in a puddle of water will soak it up and rust/go mushy/go mouldy. Maybe reconsider the whole shed thing, actually.
Alice trained as a paper conservator in the early 90s and is currently the Acting Manager of Conservation at Museums Victoria. Previously she managed Museums Victoria’s collection risk management program and other collection-wide processes. She’s also worked at the State Library of Victoria and Artlab Australia, as both a paper and preventive conservator.