The conservators - Museums Association

The conservators

John Holt talks to conservators about the challenges that they face while working to make sure that museum objects will survive to be enjoyed by future generations
John Holt
They require an eye for detail, a steady hand and a foot in both the art and science camps, as well as the expert knowledge about why things fall apart and how they may be restored to former glories.

But while leading the battle against the ravages of time on everything from parchment to plastic, conservators are themselves subject to some very 21st-century concerns.

Funding cutbacks, poor pay and job instability, ever-changing restorative techniques and shifting museum priorities, not to mention the belief in some quarters that they are little more than high-maintenance hobbyists, are among the challenges.

So it’s just as well that the everyday job itself can be so rewarding.

“When people ask us to conserve an object they don’t simply want us to mend a chip or stick a broken leg back on. They really mean ‘take this very special thing and make sure its specialness lives on’,” says Alison Richmond, the chief executive of the Institute of Conservation (Icon), the organisation that promotes people who restore everything from carpets to manuscripts and fine art to furniture.

A recent Icon survey revealed that the UK has a heritage conservation workforce of around 5,000, which includes volunteers and support staff.

A fighting force of freelance firms – many employing a single conservator – is taking up the slack created by a shrinking public sector, while some specific skills appear to be in ever-shortening supply.

Conservation courses are feeling the pinch with fewer staff available to teach often intricate hands-on skills to increasing numbers of students, adds Richmond.
“Craft courses seem to be melding into one generic subject,” Richmond says.

“I can see the rationale as a cost-cutting exercise but we work with such a wide range of materials – a single piece of furniture might comprise hundreds – and we need to preserve those specialist skills.”

There’s now a greater emphasis on work-based learning with a Heritage Lottery Fund-backed training bursary scheme ensuring that students can bolster their theory and practice with workplace experience and project management skills via paid internships.

“There isn’t a major museum in the country that isn’t supporting conservator training, all carried out pro bono, which says so much about our profession,” adds Richmond.

Katy Lithgow, head conservator, National Trust

“The trust has a cost-effective approach to conservation which is ‘little and often’. Property staff are trained by preventive conservators to carry out day-to-day care and we retain freelance advisers to ensure the collections are being looked after appropriately in their settings.

There’s currently a debate about the recommendations of the Bizot Group of international museum directors to save energy by widening relative humidity and temperature thresholds.

People who look after precious objects are alarmed but it’s this kind of discussion that drives us on.

Another issue is that collections, once valued because of their intrinsic worth alone, now have to demonstrate ‘public benefit’. The opportunity to obtain money purely on the merits of conservation is, therefore, lessened.

Knowledge transfer can be a bit wobbly when trying to sustain such a small, skilled workforce. It’s often difficult to keep up-to-date with how to look after some modern art and installations, for example.

And because we are viewed as ‘experts’, we can be perceived as being expensive but our costs – around £40 an hour for a freelance conservator – are pretty modest.

We are often considered as part of the detailed technical side of things rather than people with something to say about the content and direction of an institution. I notice there aren’t many conservators in managerial positions throughout the sector.”

Rob Thomson, preventive conservator, East Lothian, Scotland

“It’s my job to stop the woodworm coming into a building, to ensure the paint doesn’t flake off the historic portrait and to protect the bronze statue from corrosion. Prevention is better than cure and it’s a lot cheaper.

Whether you’re dealing with insects or stone decay, textiles damaged by light or paintings cracking in a room where the heating has been cranked up too high, you develop an eye for what’s going on.

I know enough to say when we need to bring in, for example, a painting or leather conservator to put things right. I didn’t begin my career in conservation. I worked at Barings Bank and saw a very dull career in front of me.

Thankfully, someone I was at university with needed a manager for a workshop of conservators in Bath. There was a lot of building and stone conservation, mending Roman mosaics and repairing churches.

I did an MSc in sustainable heritage and got a job at Historic Scotland to cover a conservator secondment. Similar to what has happened in many museums, the in-house job disappeared but there was work through an EU-tendering process and I got that.

It worked out well. I work for different people now, picking up new skills in very different settings. One thing conservators aren’t good at, however, is promoting what they do.

If, for example, something significant emerges from an archaeological dig and conservators spend weeks preparing it for display, it would still probably be the curator or archaeologist who told the story. I’d like conservators to be more appreciated.”

Jane Henderson, senior lecturer, department of archaeology and conservation, Cardiff University

“The sector is struggling but we have the largest number of students we’ve ever had because we recruited well internationally.

The UK is definitely a beacon for conservation as our museums are respected across the globe and our courses are recognised for their discipline and rigour.

Some 75%-80% of our graduates go on to another course, an internship or a job in the sector.

We teach students how to appreciate what objects are made of and the properties of those materials as well as the ability to use a range of equipment and the importance of asking questions.

We use real artefacts to encourage them to evaluate condition and devise treatment strategies. New students may be presented with a coin that a museum has pulled away from a backing fabric so that it has problems caused by corrosion and adhesives. More advanced students may get a sarcophagus that needs remedial work because it has not been carefully stored.

Of course, if museums locked their doors, switched to sub-zero temperatures and took away all the oxygen, no object would be damaged. But collections need to be used and some objects needing further study – or, in some cases, analysis and identification – come to us.

Conservators should have an input into mainstream museum strategy. Just as it wouldn’t make sense to look to the future without education or finance people, it would not be ideal to plan ahead without taking on board the sustainability of a collection.”

Leanne Tonkin, textile conservator, People’s History Museum, Manchester

“I help conserve the main gallery collections and the conservation studio also takes on external work to provide income for the museum.

I used to work in the fashion industry, mainly designing outerwear for the likes of Marks & Spencer (M&S) and Craghoppers. I still occasionally spot people wearing something I designed; a granny jacket for M&S, for example, that’s been looked after properly. All the things I learned then about the construction, production and finish of textiles have proved very useful in this job.

I had no idea what working in a museum entailed but I did a history of textiles and dress Master’s at the Textile Conservation Centre (TCC) in Winchester.

I was in the last cohort to go through the TCC before the University of Southampton closed it in 2009.

We wanted to go down fighting and show the world how great conservation can be and how dreadful the closure was. [Glasgow University and the TCC Foundation later created a new Centre for Textile Conservation and Technical Art History.]

The money side of the job isn’t great. When I tell my friends in the fashion industry how little I earn, they are truly shocked.”

Lara Artemis, collection care manager, Houses of Parliament

“I look after the book and paper collections, specifically the Parliamentary Archives, which include all the constitutional Acts, historical records, deposited plans and private papers.

They can be seen – by appointment only – in a very small search room. We have lots of visiting researchers including genealogists and those wishing to consult original material to help with legal disputes.

Parliament is keen to provide access to the archival record of its activities so we plan to make full use of the web. Documents have to be prepared for the digitisation process with minimal intervention in mind so they are stable enough to be photographed safely.

All 64,000 Acts of Parliament – from the 1490s to the present day – have been produced on parchment and preservation problems are generally around historic reader wear and tear, and past storage in rather unsuitable environments.

While a very satisfying job, the ever-evolving nature of our profession means that conservators are increasingly expected to take on board additional skills to help with areas such as communications and marketing.

Some people regard conservation as a second career, a hobby or just something nice to do, but its sheer complexity makes it a very focused occupation. Most of the material I work with is organic, which means it will die one day, but I’m here to help prolong that timeline.”

John Holt is a freelance journalist

Leave a comment

You must be signed in to post a comment.


Join the Museums Association today to read this article

Over 12,000 museum professionals have already become members. Join to gain access to exclusive articles, free entry to museums and access to our members events.