Welcome to the first in our new series of Meet a Conservator interviews! Over the coming months we will introduce you to some of the fantastic conservation professionals working in Australia and find out more about them and their work. If you’re an AICCM member and would like to take part in this series, please get in touch.
What first attracted you to conservation as a profession?
At school I loved textiles. I had a couple of Art teachers that were really into textiles including spinning and weaving. I really enjoyed working with textiles but when it came to choosing a career I didn’t think I had what it took to be an textile artist. I was searching around for similar fields and my mother heard about textile conservation and it seemed to be a perfect combination, enabling me to work with textiles using hand skills but without having to create the “new thing” every day. I started the University of Canberra course when I was 19 and have worked in the profession ever since. I haven’t found another profession that suits me better. I would hate to have a desk job where working at a computer all day and I have decided that if possible I will never completely leave bench work as for me this will always be the heart of my job.
Do you have a favorite object or material that you’ve worked on?
Its hard to pick a favorite. There’s the quirky; Repairing the elastic in the underpants of Dwane Hanson’s Washer Woman, a lifelike sculpture at the Art Gallery of South Australia, where school kids kept pulling them down. There’s the brush with celebrity; I’ve had my hand down the pants of Donald Bradman, Don Dunstan and Andy Thomas. There’s the high profile; Treating the Eureka Flag but for me the most memorable and moving were treating the garments worn by Indira and Rajiv Gandhi when they were assassinated. You would be working away and then suddenly sit back and realise exactly you were handling and it was positively gut wrenching.
What’s the one thing you wish more people knew about conservation and conservators?
More and more people know about conservators through shows on TV such as Fake or Fortune. Most people know what a Paintings Conservator might do and are very familiar with the idea that a paintings appearance can change after treatment. This is all terrific for the profession but it will take longer for the less photogenic aspects of the profession such as Textile Conservation to become more well known. This can only happen if we all keep talking about what we do and highlighting the profession on whatever platform is available to us.
Do you have any hot tips for people at home who are wanting to care for the materials around them?
The biggest killer for textiles without a doubt is light. Sure insects can get stuck into your protein fibres but its light damage that I see all the time. It’s a hard fact to accept that if you own a textile you simply can’t display it in high light levels for a long period of time without noticeable fading happening relatively quickly. If I could reverse light damage I would be rich and famous and living the life of a celebrity.
Kristin Phillips, Bachelor of Applied Science Conservation of Cultural Materials, University of Canberra, is president of South Australia/Northern Territory, Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material (AICCM). As principal conservator of textiles, Artlab Australia, she manages the Textiles Laboratory, providing services for the Art Gallery of South Australia, South Australian Museum, History SA, State Library of South Australia, and Carrick Hill, as well as private clients in Australia and overseas. She provides preventive conservation training for regional museums. She is also involved in school programs, for example, “The Wrap on Mummies: Lord Carnarvon and Lady Evelyn and Tutankhamen’s Tomb,” which introduces students to art and science. With a master knitter, she recently published a knitting pattern replicating the balaclava worn by Sir Douglas Mawson, a famous Australian Antarctic explorer.