Newsletter Issue Number:
AICCM National Newsletter No 149 March 2020

Divers completing underwater conservation work

What first attracted you to a career in conservation? How did you get started?

The advertisement for studying corrosion of shipwreck materials caught my eye and I got the job in the WA Museum Materials Conservation Laboratories in Fremantle in 1978, starting on my 30th birthday.

What does a typical workday look like at the moment?

It begins with answering e-mails for three hours and then either reviewing articles for journals, working on a report and conducting my own research work on decaying metals. If I am on a consultancy, I work in the field or in the lab for six hours a day and then go home and write up the results and try to work out what they mean. This takes up another four hours in the day.

Do you have a favourite object or collection that you have worked on?

My most favourite object was a heavily corroded 18-pounder carronade from the wreck of HMS Sirius (1790) on Norfolk Island. We had attached an aluminium alloy engine block to it and had monitored it during site visits for nearly three years. The in-situ data showed it was being actively treated in the surf zone and when recovered it had more than 75 kg of chloride removed from it. So instead of taking five years to treat it was all done in six months and up on exhibition in the island museum.

Carronade from the wreck of HMS Sirius

Carronade from the wreck of HMS Sirius

Can you think of an experience that has changed your perspective on conservation or how you approach your work?

My first rock art field trip in the Kimberley region of WA was with Traditional Owners and my colleague Philip Haydock and there I was exposed to the magical power of the painted rock surfaces within caves and shelters. We used micrometeorological methods to look at the painting and rock interfaces and to establish the microenvironment of the images. I became aware of the abiding spiritual presence of those who had been before us working and painting those images so the whole experienced deepened my spiritual awareness of the country and its original owners.

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 trained as an electrochemist working with toxic and corrosive materials, so I knew how to be careful with objects and treatments. However, working with corroded metallic and glass objects taught me to be more sensitive to their needs and to be very patient with attempts to stabilise heavily degraded artefacts. Conservation taught me to be patient and not to worry that treatments could take up to several years to come to fruition.

What is the one thing you wish more people knew about conservation?

To me the most valuable element of an object is the layers of decay found at and beneath the surface. They tell the whole history of the artefact and I guess what saddens me is when not enough time is given to studying these remarkable interfaces. We need to have conservators knowing how to interpret the data they gather so that the best can be gained for the time and money spent on acquiring this information.

Anything else you might like to reflect on and share?

Conservation is the art of making the impossible a reality and caring for the cultural materials in a sympathetic way but do it with science-based knowledge of understanding what the present and future states of the objects are. Nothing lasts forever, but we can do brilliant work on slowing down the decay rate to one that is culturally acceptable.