What first attracted you to conservation as a profession and how did you get started in the field?
I can remember being fascinated by a story in a magazine – maybe National Geographic – about the Sutton Hoo treasure. The x-ray images of the corroded metalwork showed so much detail that was hidden to the naked eye…I wanted in on that world. Then in high school my aunt, knowing that I loved art, sent me a newspaper article about a lady who was a paintings conservator, and that really fixed it for me. I wasn’t able to actually get started on it until I was nearly 30, but it was worth the wait. I moved from Brisbane and went to the open day at the University of Canberra in 1998. Talking to the girls in the paper lab, they told me that paper was where there were lots of jobs, so that’s what I specialised in (which sounds a bit mercenary, but it was the right choice). I realised that I had a passion for documentary heritage, so in my final year at uni, I applied for the National Archives’ Conservator In Training program, and was successful. I’ve been here ever since.
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?
No one experience in particular, more like a changing attitude the more I work with small collecting institutions and others with limited resources, which increasingly includes the big national institutions as well. Having to think about compromise solutions to common issues (like storage and housing), and convincing the people who work in those places that the compromise is safe – that they don’t need to buy the super-expensive plastic enclosures, the ones from the newsagent are just as safe and for much less outlay. It’s a different world out there from the utopia of Solander boxes and 24/7 climate control that we tended to think about when studying.
Do you have a favourite object or material you’ve worked on?
I love parchment, but I don’t get to play with it much. Another material I love is pith paper and I have a big collection of antique pith pictures. I’m not sure I would call it a favourite object, but the thing I remember most that I’ve worked on was a Japanese shunga print I had to retouch when I was a student, working for Ranson Davey in his studio at Ainslie. It had an abraded surface and I was looking through a microscope, recreating the patterns on the kimonos and the fine black linework…it wasn’t until I moved away from the microscope to see the bigger picture that I realised what I’d been retouching (quite beautifully, incidentally) was the young lady’s nether regions. Oh dear!
What’s the one thing you wish more people knew about conservation and conservators?
How much fun we have – and also how much knowledge and skill we need. And that it’s not all about artworks, we work in archives and libraries and museums too. (Sorry, that’s three things).
Do you have any hot tips for people at home who are wanting to care for the materials around them?
- Don’t use sticky tape on precious items
- Don’t laminate ANYTHING you want to keep/that is precious or important
- Don’t trust the term “acid free”, particularly when it refers to plastics – look for materials that have passed the PAT or have a certified archival rating
- Instead of displaying original documents or photographs, have a good copy made for display, and store the original safely.
- Check the AICCM website for information about looking after your family treasures!
Prue McKay is a Senior Conservator, responsible for Exhibitions and Loans, at the National Archives of Australia. She has a BA from the University of Queensland, and a BAppSc and GradCertAppSc from UC. She has been at the National Archives since 2001, apart from three years during which she worked at the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS). Prue’s research and conservation interests include documentary heritage, parchment, early photography, and pith paintings – she is involved in a Pith Revival Project being run out of Taiwan. In May 2016 Prue travelled to Cuba on a COALAR-funded project to instruct conservators there on current research and methodology in the treatment of iron gall ink. Prue is a Professional Member of the AICCM.