Jasper Coleman, University of Melbourne

In June 2015 I was fortunate to spend some time volunteering with conservators Sandra Yee and Lisa Nolan at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT). My visit coincided with preparation for the annual National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award (NATSIAA), and I was able to gain a behind the scenes understanding of the conservator’s role at the institution in the lead up to this major cultural event.

The NATSIAA has developed over 32 years to become a highlight on the Australian cultural calendar, as a showcase of artistic talent and developing trends in the Indigenous art world. The 2015 exhibition includes over 60 works, encompassing a range of media- paintings, paper, sculpture, ceramics and bark paintings, among others- and with the size of works ranging from small to monumental.

During this busy time, the conservation team plays a hands-on role at every stage of the exhibition development. Conservators have an acute understanding of every work in the exhibition, as they oversee handling, framing, condition reporting, cleaning and preparation of display materials. After judging, MAGNT has the opportunity to acquire works for the permanent collection, with the conservation department having a direct input into this process.

This work reflects the broad role of conservation at the museum, with staff extending their position beyond the lab to undertake work in curatorial and collections management capacities. This has been born of necessity, after an extended period of restricted government funding and the departure of staff members (with a number of positions still to be replaced). However, this has ensured that the conservation team has a holistic understanding of the museum collections- including Indigenous, Southeast Asian, Oceanic, Territory History, Visual Arts, Maritime History and Natural Sciences. As such, the conservators hold an extraordinary knowledge of objects beyond their material specialisations. A given day can see treatment of wide array of collection materials- from the restoration of boats in the maritime gallery to the consolidation of minute archaeological materials. Furthermore, conservators monitor environmental parameters, actively clean works on display and oversee Integrated Pest Management protocols.

An interesting facet of conservation practice at the MAGNT relates to the caretaking of Indigenous community collections, with a paradigm shift away from considering works as ethnographic materials towards one of community access.  A number of objects are actively used for ceremonial purposes, a situation which necessarily entails a deviation from the strict environmental parameters of the museum. Conservation adapts to this by considering works within their context of use, as  ‘living’ cultural objects.

The conservation team actively engages with current research and practice. Lisa has recently finished treatment on the museum’s highly significant early Papunya paintings, in preparation for an exhibition of the collection. Created in 1971-72, the works represent the beginnings of the Western Desert Art Movement, now considered one of the most important contemporary art movements in the world. Conservation of the works was a crucial component of exhibition development, with vital labels and documentation attached to the back of the works and adhered underneath their frames. In a number of cases, new works have been revealed painted onto the back of works, enabling them to be viewed by the public for the first time.

MAGNT has secured independent statutory authority as of July 2014, which will enable funding support from the private sector and philanthropic donations. A new board of has been founded, and the Northern Territory Government has announced an $18.3 million redevelopment of the Chan Building in Darwin to becoming a dedicated visual arts gallery. This is an optimistic time, with MAGNT moving from strength to strength. It will be exciting to see the role conservation plays with the opening of this new exhibition space.

My experiences at MAGNT have shown me that the role of the conservator must be dynamic and adaptable.  It has been fantastic to see the passion of the conservation staff, who work so effectively within an institution with relatively small staff numbers. I extend my sincere thanks to Sandra and Lisa for sharing their wealth of conservation knowledge and for being so accommodating during my stay.