What first attracted you to conservation as a profession and how did you get started in the field?
As an undergraduate student studying a Bachelor of Visual Arts (Fine Arts) majoring in printmedia, I was told my artworks had a ‘museum aesthetic’ (I’m still not sure if that was a compliment or not). Bolstered by that, and my determination to do electives on main campus, I signed up for an introductory archaeology subject. I loved it and followed with another subject in the scientific analysis of archaeological materials. A small problem was that I had no interest in the actual digging or the dirt. I was far more interested in what happened to the objects after being dug up — the analysis and whatever mysterious thing came next. I was told to go talk to the conservators. And so, before my undergraduate degree was finished, I had already applied to the Melbourne conservation course. I specialised in paper conservation and continue to dislike dirt.
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?
My internship at the Library of Trinity College Dublin in Ireland was one of the most formative experiences of my career. The Irish are very used to their heritage and its incredible age. They are almost blasé about it. On my first day I was given a 17th Century Dutch Atlas that I not only got to touch, they let me treat it! There was a really interesting contrast in the lab between the book conservator that started as an apprentice bookbinder and the book conservator that went to university to study conservation. I was lucky enough to be able to work with both! Also I got to see firsthand what happened to wheat starch paste after three months — some of the Librarians didn’t want to come to the laboratory to get fresh paste. There were green bits.
Do you have a favorite object or material you’ve worked on?
Without a doubt my favourite object is the Codex Usserianus Primus, an Early Irish Manuscript from the 5th or early 7th century. I didn’t technically work on it, but while I was at Trinity I was part of its security escort from the Manuscripts department to the Digitisation Studio. I got locked in the Studio with the object and the Photographer to assist handling the object for digitisation. The crispness of the ink on the parchment leaves, despite being well over 1000 years old, is incredible. You can see it online here.
A close second is the 1602 Bleau Celestial Globe held at the Australian National Maritime Museum. Currently Katie Wood and I are examining and documenting the globe to create a treatment proposal. It is an incredibly small, functional object with a wealth of detail and beautiful printed decoration.
What’s the one thing you wish more people knew about conservation and conservators?
That we exist! Also we are not holed up in the museum basement covered in dust. Nor do we always say ‘no’.
Has conservation taught you any skills or lessons that you use in other areas of your life?
I now have the uncanny knack to be able to find the centre of things, within a centrimetre, just by eye. It makes hanging things at home a lot easier!
Do you have any hot tips for people at home who are wanting to care for the materials around them?
Doing nothing is sometimes the best thing for your object! If you are going to do something, without a doubt you should follow some of the wonderful online resources written by conservators and conservation labs. There are lots of small things you can do (without using sticky tape!) that can make a huge difference.
Lucilla Ronai is a Conservator at the Australian National Maritime Museum working with the paper, book and photographic material in the collection. She has over six years of international and national experience including a post-graduate qualification in paper conservation. Lucilla has previously worked at the State Library of Queensland and at the Library of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. She was awarded the Bei Shan Tang Foundation Scholarship to present a research poster at the 2018 IIC — Palace Museum Paper Conservation Symposium in Beijing, China and the 2017 Nicholas Hadgraft Memorial Scholarship to attend the Montefiascone Book Conservation Summer School. Currently she is the Secretary for the AICCM NSW Division. She likes to think of her job as saving the world, one piece of paper at a time.