What first attracted you to conservation as a profession and how did you get started in the field?
I originally began studying a Bachelor of Arts in psychology, before majoring in European history. In my honours year a museum studies course was offered and I remember watching a documentary about the Historic Royal Palaces in the UK. The conservators looked like they were doing some pretty amazing things and I was hooked! I loved the idea of combining historical and cultural research with practical, hand-on activities.
I began volunteering with the National Trust in Melbourne (polishing silver and dusting Victorian furniture), before studying conservation in the medieval English city of Lincoln. Returning to Australia, I found a place in the profession after completing the Masters program at Melbourne University. I find it pretty ironic that I now work in a contemporary art museum after starting out with gothic cathedrals and chintz!
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?
Volunteering and later working for the National Trust was an eye-opening foundation for a career in conservation. The Trust and similar organisations do an incredible job at preserving significant national and local history with pretty limited resources, given the tremendous scale of their ‘collection’. It helped me to appreciate the importance of preventive conservation and pragmatic decision-making. My first ‘proper’ conservation job as a preventive conservator at Artlab Australia also helped to reinforce this understanding. It was pretty satisfying to undertake activities that impacted the preservation of literally thousands of objects.
Do you have a favourite object or material you’ve worked on?
In the last few years, I have developed a real fascination for artworks with electrical parts, like light bulbs and kinetic elements. Not only are they usually pretty complex and interesting objects, but I love untangling the multifaceted practical, intangible and ethical issues at play. Sometimes I’m untangling actual wiring too!
What’s the one thing you wish more people knew about conservation and conservators?
Across the wider public, I’d like to see a greater appreciation for what we do. I think there is a real opportunity to link our professional values with the current movement against consumerist throw-away culture. We are the ultimate experts in repair and reuse! Within the cultural sector, it would be great if colleagues understood that we wanted to facilitate engagement with cultural material, not stop it. Its just a matter of thinking intelligently about ways to meet everyone’s needs.
What skills has conservation taught you that you use in other work or areas of your life?
As the conservator at the Museum Contemporary Art, I’m responsible for the conservation of all the works of art on display, the collection in storage and planning for upcoming exhibitions and projects. The reality is that there are only so many hours in the day and I don’t have the time or resources to agonise over every little action. Conservation treatment methodology provides some good lessons about taking a step back from what you are doing to see the bigger picture. Just like when you are inpainting, infilling or cleaning, it’s important to consider the wider context of what you are doing and what outcomes are required.
Do you have any hot tips for people at home who are wanting to care for the materials around them?
STEP AWAY from the superglue!!! I’m all for encouraging repair rather than rubbish, but for precious objects in your life, superglue (or gaffa tape) is not the answer.
Kasi Albert is the conservator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, working across the wide range of materials and mediums that the museum displays and collects. She has previously held objects conservation positions at the Art Gallery of NSW, the National Gallery of Australia, the Australian War Memorial, as well as preventive conservation positions at Artlab Australia and the National Trust. Holding a Masters in Cultural Materials Conservation from the University of Melbourne and a Postgraduate Diploma in Conservation and Restoration Studies from the University of Lincoln, Kasi has a special interest in the preservation and management of contemporary art, especially installation works, and in advocacy for the conservation profession.