With an emphasis on hands-on activity, conservation work has been disrupted significantly by the pandemic.
Jenny van Enckevort, conservation manager at the People’s History Museum in Manchester, says during the first lockdown, the museum’s conservators initially worked from home clearing administrative backlogs. But it quickly became apparent that this wasn’t sustainable, and the team was furloughed.
They had gradually returned to full time work by May 2021. But the disruption meant many conservation projects – mainly commissioned by external organisations – were delayed by about six months.
Across the sector, having fewer staff on site has also contributed to a growth in pest infestations. The National Trust recorded an 11% rise in insect numbers at its properties in 2020, and many museums have reported similar situations.
Jane Henderson, a professor of conservation at Cardiff University, says remote working has meant less monitoring and disturbance of pests, alongside an increased risk of leaks and damp. Some museums have also faced complications accessing systems and data remotely, and many have realised that their prepared emergency plan wasn’t that resilient for a pandemic-style situation.
By highlighting the importance of in-person collections management, Henderson believes Covid has disproved the fallacy that access and conservation are in conflict.
Jenny Mathiasson, a freelance conservator who co-hosts the C-Word podcast for conservators, agrees that the pandemic has had a monumental impact on conservation work.
Off-site working has made it difficult for early-career conservators to develop practical skills, and for more experienced staff to maintain these. But it has also led to a transformation in building digital skills for tasks such as virtual couriering, she says, while sharing responsibilities with other teams – checking collections on-site, for example – has improved trust and collaboration.
Museums Worcestershire took collaboration one step further by allowing volunteers to take objects home to carry out research, cataloguing and conservation work.
Another positive trend that Matthiasson highlights is a more flexible approach to work locations, despite the government relaxing its work-from-home directive. She also believes Covid has encouraged conservators to be braver about sharing their work, whether via traditional methods or social media.
“We’re happier to come out of our shells more and talk about what we do,” she says.