“So, what do you do?” This is the question that I always dread at parties. The blank look, the polite nod, the death of the conversation….. Hello, my name is Emily, and I am a paper conservator and no, I don’t work with trees.
I first became interested in conservation during my undergraduate degree at Glasgow University. I was studying History of Art and I remember having a lecture on technical art history, that is, how to find out more about a painting by analysing the materials used. They showed us a painting which had pink flowers in, and then went on to explain that these flowers were originally white, but they had changed over time in reaction with the environment. Years of research had gone in to these pink flowers. Why did the artist choose pink? What did it symbolise? Only to find out that the artist didn’t intend for these flowers to be pink at all! I was amazed that paintings could be viewed in a totally different way, affecting our interpretation of it, and found the whole story very amusing.
However, not really thinking about the future, I quickly forgot about my first encounter with conservation and proceeded to spend the last year of my degree in ignorant bliss of the real world. After graduation (which coincided with a global economic crash!) and keen for adventure, I moved to Thailand for work and travel. I spent two months working as a ‘Virtual Receptionist’ (don’t ask!) in Chiang Mai, and 5 months travelling in South East Asia. I then found myself back in Glasgow with no job and no idea what to do. I started waitressing and told people I wanted to work in an Art Gallery. Unsurprisingly, this vague career plan did not come to fruition and a year later I was still serving food and receiving abuse from customers. I decided I needed to take control and find what I was really passionate about. Several years working in unsatisfying hospitality jobs made me realise I had to do something I enjoy, and I still wanted to be involved in art or history in some way, but what? Through extensive research on the internet, looking for jobs roles in museums and galleries, I came across conservation again, and I was hooked!
I decided I wanted to do a Masters Degree in Fine Art Conservation, and luckily a fabulous programme was available in Newcastle, which is close to where my parents live. I had found a degree and free accommodation – it was meant to be! However, I was cautious of spending a lot of money on a degree which doesn’t guarantee a job at the end, so I spent another year saving all my waitressing tips before enrolling on this course. I also wanted to get a bit of experience in conservation before I started, just in case I found it wasn’t for me. Again with the help of google, I found out about the Tibet Heritage Fund. This organisation aims to preserve Tibetan cultural heritage and to improve the lives of people living in traditional and historic settlements. They were carrying out a wall painting conservation project in Sikkim (now part of India, but very Tibetan) and offered me room and board in exchange for work. Keen to escape the grey rain of Glasgow and my dull job, I leapt at the chance and a few months later I found myself in a Buddhist monastery in Gangtok. My role here was to clean the wall paintings in the temple that had discoloured due to soot and dust clinging to a varnish that had also darkened over time. Armed with only a tiny cotton bud, I set to work cleaning the wall paintings. The work was long and repetitive, but I loved it. Seeing the vibrant colours appear as we cleaned away the layers of varnish and dust was incredible and I loved the reaction of the local people as they saw their temple was brought back to life. I spent two months living and working in the monastery. It was fantastic experience; I drank beers with the Princess of Sikkim, went walking in the foothills of the Himalayas and realised that conservation was just right for me.
After this, full of enthusiasm for all things heritage, I returned back to my home in 2011 to start a Masters degree at Northumbria University. Anyone who has studied conservation will know what a tough programme it is, but I enjoyed every minute of it and I would thoroughly recommend studying at Northumbria to anyone who is considering a career in the field. During this programme we had the opportunity to undertake internships in the summer months. First, I volunteered at Wallington Hall, a National Trust property in Northumberland. Here, I became a room guide and also became an exhibit myself, as I demonstrated surface cleaning and rehousing techniques to the public. I also undertook a short internship at the Heritage Conservation Centre in Singapore. My flights and living expenses during this internship were generously funded by the Zibby Garnett Travelling Fellowship (any students reading this must check this out!). I spent two months there, working with a wide range of Asian artworks such as glass plate negatives, traditional Indonesian scrolls and modern mixed media pieces. It was a wonderful experience. I learnt a great deal and it fuelled a life-long passion for Asian culture and art.
I graduated in 2013, and the day after I had handed my dissertation in, I was offered a temporary position until the end of the summer at Alnwick Castle Archives. My main role here was to sort out the print and photograph store room as well as help out with any ad hoc conservation work. There wasn’t a conservation studio as such, I was based in the corridor, with a few benches as a workplace. However, it was a great experience as I was made to think innovatively to get conservation work completed on a limited budget. I knew I was in for a treat when I was asked to complete a condition report for a few books going on loan, which included Anne Boleyn’s Book of Prayers and Caxton’s The Recuyell of the Histories of Troy (the first book to be printed in English). My contract at Alnwick Castle was extended until Christmas, but since it was a temporary position I was always on the look-out for other longer term positions.
In the seven months from May to November, I had six job interviews, and six rejections. I was losing hope. But in December 2013, a fantastic opportunity arose at Lothian Health Service Archive based at the Centre for Research Collections at Edinburgh University and I knew I had to apply. I was delighted to be chosen as Project Conservator at LHSA. In January 2014, I began work on a 12-month Wellcome Trust funded project to conserve their UNESCO-awarded HIV/AIDS collections. I was unsure how I would fare working with such modern material, but I soon found that I was amazed by the complexity of modern materials and fascinated by the weird ways in which they degrade. Working at LHSA has been an incredible experience, I have gained project management experience and have been responsible for a budget as well as supervising volunteers and interns. During my time here I have tried to make the most of opportunities available and I have achieved more than I ever thought I was capable of. I have organised a symposium entitled “Conserving Condoms: Modern Materials in Medical Archives” and also attended a lot of great training events offered by Edinburgh University.
So what’s next? Happily, my contact at LHSA has been extended until September and after that, who knows! But I’m confident that my passion for conservation and previous experience will lead me somewhere new and exciting. My advice to new professionals who are just starting out in conservation, or indeed, any profession, is to:
- Be proactive and look for work experience you are interested in. Keep applying for jobs and don’t lose hope
- Embrace short term contracts, you never know where they will lead
- Take advantage of any opportunity, get involved and get connected
- Travel – you will never regret it!