What first attracted you to a career in conservation? How did you get started?
As a newly qualified conservator I would definitely describe myself as still in the ‘getting started’ process at the moment! As for what attracted me, I’ve always loved history and found objects that connect us to the past to be very compelling. Growing up, my mum was a volunteer guide at the Australian War Memorial, and I used to tag along every weekend on her tours, getting to know the collection objects and the stories that went along with them.
A few years later we moved to the UK and I, like a good little history nerd, joined the Young Archaeologists’ Club run by Salisbury Museum (a really wonderful small museum, by the way). The club was great and we got to visit real digs and see what the practice of archaeology actually involved—namely mud, dust, sore backs and lots of holes. It didn’t really appeal, but I did love the things they found, and that love has never faded. If I’d known there was a job where other people dig up and bring the objects to you in a nice clean lab, I would have found my calling a lot earlier!
Sadly I didn’t know at that time that conservation existed, so over the years my other interests took over and I ended up working in publishing for a few years after university and editing a literary magazine. But I stayed passionate about history, particularly maritime history and shipwrecks (I always loved getting copies of Signals, the ANMM’s magazine!). When I heard about the conservation course at Melbourne Uni, something clicked and I knew it was what I wanted to do. I studied part time for a few years and got my Master’s in 2018, then immediately went to West Dean College in the UK to specialise in metals conservation. I got back last year, hoping to find work, and began life as a conservator back in Australia, which hasn’t gone quite to plan, though I don’t think I’m the only one who’s not where they thought they would be right now!
What does a typical work day look like at the moment?
At the moment I’m working from home in my non-conservation day job. I know I’m lucky to have a job that I can do from home, but I had hoped to be in New York at this time on a summer internship conserving outdoor sculpture around the city, so it’s hard not to feel a bit disappointed that it wasn’t possible.
Starting out in conservation is never easy, but I think most people would agree it’s rarely been quite this hard. It’s hard to foresee a point any time soon when conservation will be my day job, which breaks my heart a little because I really do love this strange and delightful profession of ours. I think a lot of new conservators are probably feeling the same way (solidarity to you all!); even those who’ve managed to find short-term contracts here and there will be feeling their options contract, and those in ‘real’ conservation jobs will also be feeling more precarious I’m sure. We’re all acutely aware of just how limited the job opportunities are at the best of times, let alone amid a catastrophic global pandemic.
Most days I swing between feeling pretty grim about the future, and then feeling churlish for worrying about my own career prospects when so many people around the world are sick, out of work or in desperate and dire straits. But all things pass, and I’ve been so impressed by the way conservators have responded to this crisis—going online, working from home, using technology in new and exciting ways—we are an impressive and caring bunch, which gives me a lot of hope.
Do you have a favourite object or collection that you have worked on?
Last year while at West Dean I worked on a very strange and interesting knife. It had probably been a mudlarking find (something retrieved from the muddy banks of the Thames), which then found its way into the collection of the Worshipful Company of Cutlers, one of the ancient City of London Livery Companies. The Cutlers sent it to West Dean for conservation, where it found its way onto my bench!
It had a heavily corroded blade and a beautiful octagonal handle, which turned out to be made of alternating panels of lead and gilt brass (weird!) and to have an early spring balance concealed inside it. The blade shape and style of handle seemed to date to around 1650, and it clearly had a very specific purpose for someone at some point, though sadly I never discovered exactly what that was (my pet theory was that it was a travelling cheesemonger’s knife). I did, however, get to go to one of the company’s very grand dinners in London to present the knife to them when it was finished. That was quite an experience! Though even at the Cutlers Company, no-one had any idea what this strange knife had been for, and you have to think that if the Cutlers don’t know, who would?
Can you think of an experience that has changed your perspective on conservation or how you approach your work?
I treated a 19th-century sculptural clock case last year that had a female figure with a broken arm atop it. The figure was made of brittle, soft zinc, painted to look like bronze. There were hairline cracks and deformation, and the paint was peeling badly. It was a real mess! As I started to work on it I really felt like it was an impossible task, I would never be able to repair it or make it look better, never make it structurally sound. But as the hours went past and I solved one problem, and then the next, consulted with teachers and other conservators, and tried different approaches, at some point I stepped back and realised that it actually did look better! I was making a positive difference to this object! In the end it was a very successful treatment, she got her arm back and the painted surface looked fantastic (if I do say so myself).
I know it’s a common experience to reach a point in a treatment where you feel as though you are just making things worse, where your approach isn’t working and you wonder if you’ll ever be able to finish the treatment at all. But as a new conservator, learning to trust yourself and your skills (and also to know their limits) in order to get through that point of mild panic is something you can only do through practice. This treatment helped me to accept that a moment of despair is often a natural part of the treatment process, something to sit with but not be overcome by.
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?
I was always very wary of mould, but conservation training has made me a real mould-o-phobe. I can’t bear wet towels lying around or poorly ventilated bathrooms, and of course I keep a portable temp and RH monitor in my house and check it constantly—that’s normal, right? I have also taught myself to repair my own iPhone when the screen breaks or the battery dies, which I don’t think I would have had the confidence or handskills to do before my conservation training! Though does it speak poorly of me that I break so many iPhone screens in the first place? Best not to enquire too closely.
What is the one thing you wish more people knew about conservation?
As everyone always says for this question … that it exists! I do think that even in the five years I’ve been in the conservation world, the profile of the profession has improved a lot, but things could always be better. I think new and emerging conservators are doing amazing work in this respect, using technology, social media and webinars etc. to promote and share conservation knowledge. Of course, this approach has suddenly become more important than ever and groups like the AICCM’s Emerging Conservators SIG and SC@M are showing us all how it’s done with their awesome webinar series.
Anything else you might like to reflect on and share?
Just that I hope I get to see and spend time with my conservation friends again soon! I hope we’re all being kind to ourselves and our colleagues, and that we can be even more collegiate and supportive of one another both now and when this is all over (whatever ‘over’ looks like). It’s going to be a difficult road to recovery for our institutions and practices and careers, and for our sense of well-being too.