I have recently had the great pleasure of traveling to Rome to undertake discussions on European standards for conservation and of dining in the 18th century York Mansion House with the Lord Mayor following a conference presentation.
As I looked out of the window of the Merchant’s hall at the tourists outside looking back in at me it prompted me to reflect on the privilege I was experiencing. How delightful is it to walk past the Fontana di Trevi on the way to work or to dine at centuries old tables surrounded by works of art. It made me ask How did I get here?
Working in conservation
Of course the answer is because of a lifetime of work with cultural heritage. Although my own priorities have always been the museums and collections in Wales, learning how to care for these collections allows insight and reflection that can be shared with those facing similar challenges around the world. Working in conservation is a privilege.
What the conservator saw (and touched and smelt)
When we examine and treat objects we can be the first to see a surface for 100’s or even 1000’s of years. When we freeze dry a Roman leather sandal to safely remove the water we can place our fingertip in the impression left by a roman soldier years ago. When we clean the surface of a sarcophagus we decide whether to remove the Victorian chalk marks and leave the Egyptian over painting used to replace the details of one occupant with another. As we clean, photograph, document and repair we often flood the object with light and remove tiny pieces to discover things that we want to find out.
Yet it is processes like these which those of us concerned with preventive conservation seek to prevent others from doing. I remember my own horror on a visit to the Taj Mahal to find a tourist round the back attempting to chip out a piece (sample) for their own purposes. Those readers of the blog who know me will be able to imagine the discussion that followed.
Becoming a conservator
But for all the access to place, artefact and intimacy there is a greater privilege that I experience and that is knowing the people that care for our heritage. Every year a new set of students arrive from around the world from Taipei to Seoul from Madrid to New York to become conservators via our degrees. They have heard the warnings that we put out that it will be hard work, frustrating, exhilarating and challenging but they want to be here.
For each conservator there is a journey, a discovery of the complexity and depth of conservation. The frustration experienced at the lack of certainty yet the certainty that things can be wrong. After weeks or months of questions that lead to more questions the whole of conservation begins to form in their minds. The transition to conservator is not when they know it all. Perhaps it is when they know what they need to know and how to find out the rest. Or perhaps they make that leap the first time they wake in the night with an insight or concern about their object and treatment.
Life of a Cardiff conservation student
The students that I meet work a full week in lectures and laboratories. They sometimes commute from afar or come from early shifts in coffee shops and often they leave to volunteer in a museum. They turn in conserved objects, papers and reports and yet still make time to submit conference papers and posters, to write reviews and opinion pieces for journals and to create conservation information for the public or non-specialist. Despite this mammoth agenda they build lifelong friendships, stay happy, make time to party, travel, get tattooed, knit, belly dance, maintain their families or dye their hair. Of all the privileges I experience surely knowing these future professionals is the greatest of all.
Jane Henderson, BSc, MSc, PACR, FIIC, Senior Lecturer at Cardiff University.
Jane has been working in and studying in conservation and collections care in Wales since 1984. She teaches on Cardiff University’s BSc in Conservation and MSc’s in Collections Care and in Conservation Practice. Jane is the stewardship representative on the Welsh Federation of Museum and Art Galleries and the Trustee representing Wales for ICON The Institute for Conservation. Jane has published on issues related to: conservation decision making; influence for collections care; sustainable conservation practice; teaching and assessing conservation.
Jane currently represents Icon on the CEN TC 346 WG11, which has looked at a standard for the conservation process and will shortly consider tendering. She has received support from the Welsh Government via CyMAL to attend these working group meetings.