The collections sector is home to many different professionals who bring a wide ranging set of skills and knowledge. Understanding the different roles is a great way to get a better understanding of different parts of the industry.
Conservators are critical to ensuring the preservation of our cultural heritage – without appropriate conservation, many items would no longer exist. Many conservators specialise in the conservation of specific materials or types of objects, but often the key principals are the same.
We have partnered with the Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material to find out more about the role from some Western Australia conservators. Vanessa Wiggin, the Director of Museumly, answered some questions about her work.
Hi Vanessa! Tell us about yourself.
I began studying for a Bachelor of Applied Science in Conservation of Cultural Materials at the University of Canberra in 1991 and graduated in 1995. We did a lot of chemistry and practical training in conservation treatments, learned about how objects are made and how they deteriorate. In those days it wasn’t really encouraged to do conservation training straight out of school. Us school leavers copped a bit of flak, but most of us are still going in the profession! After a few years of doing different contracts around Australia, as well as working as an Australian Volunteer Abroad at a museum in Palau, I went to Helsinki for a year to do a degree in Marine Archaeological Conservation. I recently obtained a Masters in Cultural Heritage, which has really given me a much broader insight into museums and the heritage industry
I came to Western Australia in 2001 directly from Finland in order to work on the new Maritime Museum project. I then worked at the Art Gallery of Western Australia for a few years. Since I first arrived in WA, I noticed that there was a demand for private objects conservators, as there wasn’t anyone working in this area. When I left the gallery in 2006 to have my first child, I thought I would try my hand at establishing a business.
Currently I am the owner and director of Museumly (formerly ArtWorks Conservation). I do conservation work for private individuals, museums and galleries, local and state government, businesses and heritage organisations.
What do you do in your role as a conservator?
Many people outside the museum industry have never heard of a conservator. I usually say that I’m a restorer or people assume I go around hugging trees all day, not that there is anything wrong with that! But really conservators and restorers have quite different approaches. Being a conservator is about trying to ensure the long-term survival of cultural artefacts that have significance and the information one that they contain. It’s different to restoration because the significance may not be a monetary or aesthetic one.
Conservation is not always about making objects look undamaged and new again. Signs of wear and previous repairs might just tell an interesting story about their ownership and use. We try to keep as much original material as possible.
Most conservators specialise in a particular field, for instance paper, textiles, paintings or objects. As one of the only objects conservators working privately in the state I get to work on a very diverse range of items. Just this month I worked on ceramics, gravesites, an outdoor sculpture, Aboriginal and PNG artefacts, a table, a stove and a metal coat of arms! I can’t take all the credit though, working on large projects is often about trying to assemble the best team possible.
Conservation is not just about doing conservation treatments. I am sometimes asked to write condition reports or conduct collection surveys; pack artefacts for storage or transportation; or fabricate display supports. I do a fair bit of training, including teaching courses on preventive conservation, disaster recovery and metals conservation. I provide advice on preventive conservation, including writing Preservation Needs Assessments, which are funded by the National Library. In the public art sphere, its really a mixed bag – I have been involved in the creation, installation and relocation of sculptures and other artworks. Sometimes sculptures are beyond conservation help so I help managers make decisions on deaccessioning or even recreating using different materials. Now that I have training in Cultural Heritage, I’m starting to offer some other services as well such as significance assessment and cataloguing.
When do museums and galleries need a conservator?
This can depend on the level of training that staff or volunteers have. Some local museums have a really good understanding of preventive conservation and standards are really high. Others may need the advice of a conservator in learning about preventive conservation and making cost-effective and practical changes to better protect their collection.
Most of the time, interventive conservation treatments should only be carried out by a conservator. There is a real risk of irreparable damage being done by untrained personnel. This can mean that valuable information on the history of the object is lost. Often people may seek to return objects to a new-looking condition, which is generally not appropriate.
Some simple techniques like brush vacuuming and preparing objects for storage can easily be learnt by non-conservators. I sometimes offer practical workshops in conducting basic conservation treatments, as many small museums cannot afford the services of a conservator for everything. However, I would always recommend that further advice is sought for anything more complex.
Why is it important for museums and galleries to employ professionally accredited conservators?
In many professions such as architecture, law or medicine people can only practice and use certain titles if they have appropriate training and accreditation. There is also a requirement for skills to be kept up-to-date. hat way we have a sense of protection when we consult a professional. You will never go to a new doctor and find that the only training they have received is from YouTube or trial and error!
Unfortunately, the term ‘conservator’ is not a reserved title, so not everyone calling themselves a conservator has appropriate training or keeps abreast of new techniques or ways of thinking.
The AICCM publishes a code of ethics which all trained conservators would be familiar with. Working within the code of ethics is really what sets conservators apart from restorers. It’s really important to employ conservators that are Professional Members of the AICCM because they are experienced conservators that have appropriate training and have been assessed by their peers as having good ethical standards.
Professional members must demonstrate that they are committed to ongoing professional development or are actively providing training for others. This is really important as no two objects are ever exactly the same, there is always something new to learn. The thinking behind conservation treatments has also shifted considerably since I did my initial training.
What are your preventive conservation tips?
Preventive conservation is definitely the least sexy side of conservation. It may not be glamorous, but it is the most effective by far! Having conservation work done is expensive and will not keep objects from deteriorating again if they are not kept in good environmental conditions.
One of the simplest and cheapest ways of improving the care of the collections at local museums is reducing and understanding light levels. Most people know that light causes permanent fading and weakening of many types of artefact, but as it happens gradually it may go unnoticed until it’s too late. I like to tell people to ‘stick it where the sun doesn’t shine’ but for some reason they think I am being offensive!
I sometimes see uncovered windows in storage areas. There should be no need reason for this. Just block them up with whatever is at hand, a piece of cardboard or plywood will do. In exhibition areas, of course we do need light, but direct sunlight should not fall on objects. Very light sensitive items like textiles and paper should not remain on permanent display if possible. These days its easy to get high quality copies made of important documents, so its preferable to display the copies if they are exhibited for a long period.
Another common mistake at small museums is thinking that the use of expensive UV filtering glazing will protect objects from light. These products only reduce the UV portion of light, they don’t reduce the full spectrum of light, so fading and weakening will still occur.
My other favourite tip is always always always wear gloves when handling metal objects. They may look robust but in time the fingerprints will show and be etched permanently into the surface. Not a good way to leave your mark at a museum!