What first attracted you to conservation as a profession and how did you get started in the field?
I wanted to become a conservator before I even really knew it was a real thing. So, when I was younger I saw a movie you may have heard of—Titanic. I know you’re wondering how I’m going to tie this 1997 classic in, but hear me out. There is a small scene where they find the famous sketch of nude Rose, recovered from the depths of the ocean floor, and take it to a lab where a woman in a lab coat is gently flowing a stream of water over the sketch to clean it from mud and dirt, and I thought—yep. I don’t know how to get there, but that’s absolutely what I want to do. After not really knowing it was a viable option—I finished studying a Bachelor of Arts at ANU majoring in International Relations and Spanish with a lot of science subjects thrown in there for good measure. I then discovered the University of Melbourne Masters course and quickly got myself down there, and the rest is history! For me, the best part is the combination of historical and scientific research or facts, with hands on practical and artistic skills.
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?
Working with a variety of people from different backgrounds, trainings, and experiences has really taught me the most. I’ve been able to appreciate the commonalities of conservation treatments, yet also learning how the approaches can differ both ethically and technically quite widely depending on the conservator, their preferences, the object, and a number of other factors. It meant understanding that there was rarely ever just one way to do things, however in the end we are all working towards the same goal and doing our best with the knowledge we have at the time to make these objects and their significance last as long as we can with the resources we have available.
Another thing that has taught me a lot, was when I made my first mistake on an object (I had unknowingly created saponification of an ink after the use of an alkaline poultice to remove a stain). Once I did that, and got through it—where no one was injured, the world didn’t end, I wasn’t fired or put in a corner, and everything was repaired in the end—everyone else’s horror stories started to come out of the woodwork, and I didn’t feel so mortified. These were the stories that I learnt so much from and think everyone should share more often! We’re only human and can learn from each other’s mistakes, without putting too much pressure on ourselves.
Do you have a favorite object or material you’ve worked on?
My favourite object to work with has been a 14th century English Psalter, which was discovered to have annotations from a little sixteenth century Welsh school boy, which was not something I actually undertook any treatment on, but observed from a far, as I was only a baby book conservator at the time, with no great experience. The beauty of keeping this very well handled and well loved, manuscript in its ‘ancient’ and inscribed state as it was as much as possible with minimally invasive and unobtrusive techniques showed so much respect to everything that book was, had been through, and would see in the future. I was able to learn so much about the materials used and how to repair it just by listening to my colleague who was working on it, and observing, which I would absolutely recommend to anyone—be a sponge and soak up as much information as you can.
What’s the one thing you wish more people knew about conservation and conservators?
I’d like our field of work to be more accessible to the public—displaying more evidence and explanation of the work that goes on behind the scenes, whether it’s a feature within exhibition displays showing time lapses of treatment, actual conservators working in the exhibition space as the NMA has done before, or simply a highlighting the profession itself into more of a mainstream light. I’d like it if people knew the passion and technical knowledge that goes into what we do, and why we love it!
I’ve learnt how to communicate clearly with others and advocate for the work we do and how to do it. My current role oversees in-house exhibitions and projects on collection material, which means I do a fair bit of communicating and negotiating with collection areas, exhibitions areas, digitisation areas, and really anyone in the building! I love working with others in the Library and am always interested to see their passion for the work they do and what they want to achieve, as everyone has their own interests and desired outcomes. Yet sometimes this clashes with what I as a conservator want, or what we can achieve with limited timeframes or resources, and to negotiate around these scenarios is something I’d like to think I’ve been able to use in my daily life—but actually I think I’m just getting better at talking up how amazing our job is, and how much we love working with the material!
Do you have any hot tips for people at home who are wanting to care for the materials around them?
Watch out where you keep your most precious books or documents! If you’re putting your favourite inherited book above a fireplace or in a bookshelf resting in direct sunlight—see if there is a darker, cooler spot in the house to display them. When handling your beautiful inherited books, try not to open them flat on their back as this can snap the spine or the binding, which can be quite a lengthy and involved process to repair! And finally avoid tape and leather dressings!
Freya Merrell is a Senior Book and Paper conservator at the National Library of Australia, responsible for in-house exhibitions and collection care. She has completed her Bachelor of Arts at the ANU and Master of Cultural Material Conservation at the University of Melbourne, during which she has previously interned and volunteered at the State Library of Victoria. She has also completed several bookbinding and conservation workshops together with on the job training to make up for the absence of formal book conservation training in Australia.