Elizabeth Gralton interviews the Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation new academic staff member, Dr. Jonathan Kemp.
What originally motivated you to become a conservator?
It was a combination of serendipity and loss. After completing a philosophy degree, I failed to get a Fulbright scholarship to go to NYC so I took myself off to Bodmin Moor in Cornwall to write. It was there I came across the 18th-century proto-anarchist figure Daniel Gumb, a local stone mason and homespun mystic (the ‘Mountain Philosopher’) who lived with his family in a DIY cave on the moor. In between making gravestones and kerbs, he hacked out geometric formulae on granite boulders scattered across the landscape. Somehow this appealed to me but my idyll was cruelly interrupted by my mum’s untimely passing. Her death prompted me to go to college and learn stone carving —my main project was her gravestone — and as a new conservation course had just started I stayed on and completed a postgraduate diploma in stone conservation.
Can you give us an example of a particular treatment that has in some way marked your career?
A few years ago I was asked to work on a large 20th-century art object in North America. In a gallery re-arrangement, communications broke down between external conservators and the in-house technicians such that an unfamiliar process was attempted using a forklift. It had disastrous consequences and the object crashed to the ground and broke in two (well, into two large parts and hundreds of smaller fragments). After this catastrophe, where judgment around a common purpose had perhaps become distorted by difficult working relationships and policies, I suggested that, in contrast to the proposed year-long procedure to build a permanent exoskeleton to re-integrate the parts, we could use an internal armature to fix them together and then reassemble smaller fragments around the structure, all of which was approved and actually took about a month.
Without going into detail, the point of the story is to show how even with very experienced conservators and even when the ‘what’ and ‘why’ are seemingly clear, the methodologies and decision-making processes used in producing a ‘how’ —how is it going to be addressed — can wildly vary and, very importantly, are always dependent on highly qualitative properties. Actually, the real difference between the two proposals lay in how the ‘why’ was modulated by our different understanding of what was achievable according to the museum’s brief, and thus led to two very different ‘hows’, rather than being dependent just on timescales and costs.
For you, what is the most interesting part of the process of engaging with an object?
Whilst a cliché, it’s nonetheless true to say that each thing presents its own challenges, and it’s the kind of REPL (read/evaluate/print/loop) process that I like, where observation is followed by evaluation and where any implementation is subject to a similar process again. Quite often the loops are very short-lived but documentation can at least help make each timeslice perform as a benchmark of sorts. Processes are always constrained, so it’s part of the challenge to both ground and optimise them as much as possible as you know the item will probably not be revisited for many years to come.
As a conservator of sculpture, stone and archaeology, you must have worked on some large-scale projects. Is abseiling part of your skill set?
No, it’s not. Abseiling is a not-so-fond school trip memory to Wales and now, as I’ve got older, vertigo has crept up on me so I’m happy to have hired conservation abseilers in the past (although not so happy with the outcome, but that’s another story…)
You have worked at the Victoria and Albert Museum. That sounds exciting. How did you get that gig?
In the case of the V&A, it was my freelance experience with larger monuments that they were particularly interested in as the Museum was then embarking on a four-year project to re-develop its Medieval & Renaissance galleries. So my main role as a senior conservator at the Museum’s sculpture conservation studio was to oversee the de-installation and conservation and re-installation of several stone, stucco, fresco and ceramic sculptures and monuments, whilst continuing as best as possible with collection care and loan duties.
Like with any job, it’s only by applying that you organise your mess of notes, reports, images and versions of your CV into a kind of narrative, not only for your prospective employer but for yourself. The narrative always differs slightly according to the job or contract on offer but I would say it’s nearly always worth doing, even if you don’t think you fit the profile. On the other hand, it can also be quite galling as you realise what you haven’t got anymore, or didn’t record, or just how chaotic your personal archive can be even when you’re evangelical about documentation elsewhere!
You are currently the editor of Journal of the Institute of Conservation. How important is it for conservators to publish in academic journals?
Conservators in institutions spend a lot of time at their desktop, freelancers perhaps less so, and this is reflected in where submissions often come from. But whatever—and wherever—your role, it’s important to communicate the work you’re doing on whatever platform is available. Academic journals are one platform that offer the opportunity for people to share their ideas, methodologies, and practice with a supportive and constructive audience, from peer reviews by specialists to use and development by the wider profession. This is fundamental to conservators as part of their continuing professional development. But I would suggest it’s also fundamental to ensure conservation’s long-standing commitment to processes of disclosure, for which academic journals offer one opportunity for embedding your work in the record. It is also by going through the process of writing, peer review, and editing that those involved in conservation often see ways of developing their ideas — including understanding where they fall down — and motivate them to produce more rigorous and intelligent work.
You are obviously an accomplished conservator, so tell us about how your strengths and experiences will benefit students at the University of Melbourne.
Firstly, I hope I’ll add to the overflowing pot of enthusiasm for the subject at the Grimwade Centre as conservation is a rare and heady place to be in, given that quite often it’s the interface of the conservator’s brain, hand and eye that’s charged with transcribing the different aspirations, concerns and rituals of the many agencies involved in a thing’s preservation. And if conservation always works in a series of leaky (ontological) containers, real and abstract, I hope to aid students in honing their methodological approaches to decision-making processes around the conservation ‘event’, while reinforcing their understanding of both the tools and methods available to them to execute the procedures committed to.
What is your advice for conservation students as they make the transition into professional practice?
While at the Centre, and all being well, students are already transitioning into professional practice as they will have laid down the foundation for their subsequent approach to the items that come into their care. They will find that they will change some aspects of this approach, out of volition or by necessity, but what I hope that they will always keep in focus is how any course of action taken must be grounded in a sound and as-far-as-possible open methodology, following the meta-mantra of what, why and how – what’s the issue, why does it need addressing, and how’s it going to be done?
Elizabeth Gralton is a second year Masters student in the program with an interest in many things and paper conservation.