What first attracted you to a career in conservation? How did you get started?
I’ve always loved art, especially paintings. I studied art at school and did oil painting and photography. Then I studied a Bachelor of Arts at university thinking I wanted to be an art historian. In my late twenties I attended talks by conservators at the NGV and the Ian Potter Centre. One talk detailed how the conservator had treated posters that had been rolled up under a bed for years, with dirt and creases. They looked amazing in the exhibition. I couldn’t believe that restoring posters could be a job! I was working at the University of Melbourne at the time and enrolled in the conservation degree course part-time. I chose the painting specialisation as that is my favourite medium.
What does a typical workday look like at the moment?
I currently work as Senior Conservator (Painting) at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery where I am responsible for caring for the painting collection. I spend 80 percent of my time preparing paintings from our collection for exhibition and loan. My work involves different levels of treatment and working closely with the Conservation Technician on reframing works.
I am also President of the AICCM, which is a varied and interesting role. The focus at the moment is strategic planning and we engaged a Foresight consultant to guide us. This year we have spent time focusing on our responses to the bushfire crisis and COVID-19. In particular, the AICCM has worked with other organisations, such as Blue Shield Australia, AMaGA and NAVA, on measuring how these events have impacted the GLAM sector.
A typical workday therefore would be focused on museum priorities in terms of collection care, mixed with wider sector work and planning for the AICCM.
Do you have a favourite object or collection that you have worked on?
Yes, I worked on an oil painting that was a landscape with a cottage in the snow. It had been in a room with tobacco smoke and cleaning it was very rewarding. The snow changed from yellow to white, which was beautiful. There was quite a smell involved when I removed the tobacco smoke with aqueous cleaning. I can imagine the smell when I think about it.
Can you think of an experience that has changed your perspective on conservation or how you approach your work?
My experience at Waringarri Aboriginal Arts Centre in the Kimberley changed my perspective of conservation. The climate, resources and focus were different from the focus in a lab in a capital city. The experience made me appreciate how resourceful conservators need to be, and what skills we can share. More importantly, I learnt the impact the art centre has beyond its economic input, but in terms of maintaining cultural identity and community.
Has working in conservation taught you any skills that you use in other areas of your everyday life? Or do you bring everyday skills into the conservation lab?
Examining paintings under infrared radiation reminded me of learning infrared photography in the darkroom at art school. I was astounded to find out how much easier infrared photography had become with digital SLRs. Since using infrared photography in my work, it has become a creative outlet for me. I regularly take infrared photographs of landscapes.
An everyday skill I have needed in the lab is to sew. I wish I had paid more attention to textiles class at school.
What is the one thing you wish more people knew about conservation?
Although we may have similar job titles, conservators do a huge variety of tasks. Some of my colleagues are in the lab, others spend most of the day in storage areas, and some spend much of their time outside. Depending on where we work and where our interests lie, we can do completely different tasks in our workdays and experience vastly different careers.
Anything else you might like to reflect on and share?
I think that conservation is a very rewarding career. It’s an interesting mix of research and hands-on work. Paintings are my favourite type of art so I’m very happy being surrounded by them every day and being able to see the paintings up close. I remember in art history looking at slides of Mark Rothko’s paintings, but it was not until I saw one in person at the NGV that I felt an emotional connection. To me, that is what makes conserving artwork so important, because it means that we can continue to appreciate the paintings now and in the future