Newsletter Issue Number:
AICCM National Newsletter No 140 December 2017

What first attracted you to conservation as a profession and how did you get started in the field?

I was backpacking around Europe in 2001-2003 and at some point I visited an exhibition, I think it was in the Netherlands somewhere, which had a conservation focus; X-rays of Rembrandts and photomicrographs of the paint surfaces etc.. that sort of thing. It was the first I’d heard of conservation and it must have stuck in the back of my mind and niggled away until I got back to Australia. Once I got back I found the Postgraduate Certificate of Art Conservation Studies at the University of Melbourne and completed that in 2005 as a way of seeing if conservation was going to be my cup of tea. I enrolled in the Masters course at Melbourne Uni straight afterwards. 
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?
I think the moments when I have learnt the biggest lessons which have really shaped my approach, have been on some of the big, strange, challenging projects I’ve been lucky enough to have been involved with over the years. Things like large scale treatment projects; wall paintings, the Australian War Memorial dioramas, historic ceilings, school murals and such, where you’re working with a team, on location – and at times challenging locations such as work sites, up scaffolding, or remote locations where there’s a lot of planning involved in shipping in materials and equipment. These situations require you to plan for all possible problems which might arise, they require lateral thinking, oodles of pragmatism, and they are incredibly satisfying when you come out alive at the other end.  
Do you have a favorite object or material you’ve worked on?
I have a soft spot for the paintings that have been in family collections for years that have wonderful stories connected to them, that often really only have sentimental worth. If they come to me falling to pieces (often quite literally) and I am able to bring them back to displayable condition for the families to continue to enjoy, then these are definitely the most rewarding treatments. These are often also the most transformative treatments. That said, I have also been lucky enough to have worked on artworks by some of my favourite artists, and this is always special, being able to spend that time up close with the artist’s work.
What’s the one thing you wish more people knew about conservation and conservators?
That we exist.
Do you have any hot tips for people at home who are wanting to care for the materials around them?
Working as a paintings conservator in private practice, I see the same types of damage over and over again. My hot tips are: make sure your painting is HUNG SECURELY and not about to fall off the wall and hit everything protruding object on the way down; make sure your painting is housed securely in its frame and not about to drop out; if you are moving house consider using an art transport service rather than letting the removalists handle it; and if you are having any renovations or painting done in your home, remove or at least cover your paintings. Oh and try not to throw things at each other when you argue, flying phones and shoes can really rip up a canvas.

Helen Gill has been working as a Conservator of Paintings for 10 years both within Australia and internationally. She has worked with the National Gallery of Victoria as H.D.T Williamson Foundation Fellow, the National Gallery of Denmark, as well as other significant collecting institutions around Australia. Since establishing her own freelance studio practice in 2013, she has completed conservation projects for a number of large institutions, regional gallery and council collections, private collectors and in collaboration with other private studios both in Australia and in Denmark. Helen is an accredited, professional member of the Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Materials (PMAICCM).