What first attracted you to conservation as a profession and how did you get started in the field?
I had a passion for art and science at a young age. I recall a framed Ned Kelly by Nolan at my grandparents’ house in Randwick. They took me to Museums Australia when I was four to see the dinosaurs. As children my mother liked to frequent the Queensland Museum and the Queensland Art Gallery where we learnt about natural sciences and the Australian art collection intimately. I was intrigued by how the mummified cat’s head was attached to Brett Whitley’s huge painting on six panels titled ‘Portrait of Arthur Rimbaud’ 1970-71 consisting of oil, gold-leaf, synthetic polymer paint, mummified lacquered cat’s head and collage, 203.3 x 518.1cm.
My first encounter with conservation was when John Hook, former Senior Paintings Conservator, took us upstairs on a tour of the old paintings conservation lab while training as a volunteer guide at Queensland Art Gallery in 2000. John showed us William Dobell’s The Cypriot that had recently been x-rayed to discover an underpainting of a Boy lounging. This was the start of my awareness of the conservation profession.
When I graduated with a Bachelor of Visual Arts in 2001 I was a practising artist and began working in Gallery 482, a commercial gallery with Joseph Airo-Farulla, a former Visual Arts co-ordinator at Queensland University of Technology and a fantastic mentor. The private conservation studio, RSM Art Conservation was situated at the back of the gallery. Richard McDonald and Vicky Locke knew that I was interested and I began assisting with minor tasks one day per week which eventually built up to a full-time traineeship.
In 2006, I was accepted into Melbourne University to be part of the third intake of their conservation masters program. In 2007, my father recommended the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT) in Darwin as a good cultural institution to carry out my conservation internship. I worked for two weeks with Sue Bassett, former Senior Conservator and Sandra Yee, locally trained conservator preparing the NATSIAA awards. I was fortunate to be accepted as the first qualified paintings conservator at MAGNT and moved from Melbourne to the pre-monsoon storm season in Darwin known as Gunumeleng in November 2007.
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?
Since 2007 I have worked with the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award (NATSIAA) at MAGNT, celebrating 34 years this year. This is the longest running Award of its kind in Australia and has a close involvement with the local Australian art community including art galleries, art centres and practising contemporary artists. Consulting with living artists regarding the treatment of their artworks and understanding the significance of each cultural object has changed how I approach my conservation practice.
Do you have a favourite object or material you’ve worked on?
Yes, four months into working at MAGNT there was an incident that influenced my career. I was asked to work on the Early Papunya Boards Conservation Project involving the consolidation and backing removal of 163 unrestricted paintings from 1971 to 1972. These were part of the first contemporary paintings to have been painted in the desert by founding Papunya artists. Curated by Senior Papunya men and Luke Scholes, Curator of Aboriginal Art and Material Culture at MAGNT; this exhibition will be on display in July 2017 and I hope people will travel to Darwin to see these significant Australian artworks.
What’s the one thing you wish more people knew about conservation and conservators?
We currently do not appear to have qualified Aboriginal conservators practising within Australian cultural institutions. I feel that it is important for local custodians to have the ability to look after their own and Australia’s historical cultural heritage. This is a new era for Indigenous engagement and authority in cultural heritage within Australia. Burgeoning Indigenous professionals are needed within Australian cultural institutions in order to grow conservation as a profession.
Do you have any hot tips for people at home who are wanting to care for the materials around them?
For those living in the tropics dust, mould and insects are the most problematic when looking after collections in uncontrolled environments. Minimise the dust through good housekeeping and keep the fans on during times of high humidity it may not be environmentally friendly however with good air circulation mould can be minimised. Also keep an eye on your organic collections and make sure you are able to monitor them throughout the wet season. Be on the lookout for insect damage and mould or buffer them by wrapping them in archival tissue or washed calico and place in an archival box.
Lisa Nolan is Conservator at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT), Darwin. Holding a Master of Arts (Cultural Material Conservation) from the University of Melbourne, Nolan specialises in paintings conservation. Since 2007, she has been responsible in caring for the significant collection of Australian art at MAGNT. As a member of the Australian Institute for Conservation of Cultural Material (AICCM), Nolan has a passion for conserving modern and contemporary Australian art, utilising preventive and minimally interventive treatments. Nolan’s role in the Early Papunya Boards Conservation Project was crucial to the Tjungunutja exhibition development, uncovering and documenting information on the backs of 163 unrestricted early Papunya paintings. Nolan continues educating the community about the importance of the conservation profession in museums, art galleries and the broader arts community.