Before I graduated from high school my dad told me I should study what I’m passionate about, because it meant I would succeed. I took his advice and double majored in Honours History and Religion, with a minor in Art History, but halfway through my undergraduate degree at Carleton University, I still had no idea what the end goal of my degree would look like.
Then in May of 2012, I had a chance to visit Greece with the Classics department. They were on a mission to study Greece in the Bronze Age, and it was there that an idea for my future began to emerge. While on Santorini, our class visited the archeological site of Akrotiri and had the chance to tour the pottery and fresco labs. Though we had visited other labs around Greece by this point, these were the ones that stuck with me, and guided me to the field of conservation. While inside, I saw all of the fresco pieces laid out on tables, with conservators and archaeologists tracing their shapes and images onto clear plastic covers. As they worked, you could see them reviving the dusty bits of stone and plaster for us to see. Maybe it was the puzzle-like quality of pottery reconstruction, or maybe it was the fresco images being seen for the first time in centuries; whatever it was, I knew I wanted to be a part of it. Discovering conservation in those labs in Greece gave me a path to follow that led me to where I am today – Cardiff.
Fresco pieces under one of the diagrammed plastic covers – Akrotiri
A partially reconstructed ceramic vessel – Akrotiri
I started out with an interest in paper, and in May 2013 I visited five different universities in the UK: Northumbria, West Dean, Lincoln, UAL: Camberwell, and Cardiff. I quickly realized that my current degree, grades, and lack of chemistry and practical experience would hinder my application processes. So instead of applying right away, I gathered more skills and experience. I took organic chemistry for arts students in my last year of undergrad, I volunteered in museums and on conservation projects through school, and I started working in the heritage sector. Academically, I completed a three year Applied Museum Studies degree program at Algonquin College, which taught me collections management, conservation, exhibition design and building, museum management, and so much more. I spent a month in Italy in 2016 with the San Gemini Preservation Studies program, studying archaeological ceramic analysis and conservation.
Spout reconstruction using glass micro balloons – Algonquin College Applied Museum Studies program
Mechanical cleaning of pottery sherds – San Gemini Preservation Studies
In November 2016 I started putting together applications for grad school. By this point, I had been involved in a major paper conservation project – five WWII RCAF propaganda posters brought to my school for students to conserve. But at the end, I found paper just wasn’t for me. Instead, I had fallen in love with ceramics, and later with inorganics in general. Throughout the application process I worried that what I had done wouldn’t be enough, that my experiences wouldn’t make up for the lack of chemistry courses, that I didn’t even have enough experience. Between January and April 2017 I undertook a conservation placement at Parks Canada in order to complete my degree, and this was a sticking point for some of my applications. Some schools said I should only apply after I had completed the placement, while others indicated that my placement learning goals would be enough of an indication as to my ability. I had to gather transcripts, reference letters, and examples of my work, but I finally submitted my three applications at the end of January.
Chemical cleaning of copper sheeting – Parks Canada placement
The waiting was the hardest part, but by mid-February I began to receive positive responses, and had a difficult choice to make. I agonized over my options. I ultimately chose Cardiff because I liked how the program was structured around problem-based learning, I had heard nothing but good things about the instructors, and I had really enjoyed the city when I visited in 2013. Basically, I knew I would thrive here. Today, I joke about how the Tim Hortons coffee shop opening in the city later this year was a sign that I made the right choice – it is a Canadian chain, and a national treasure at that.
After accepting my acceptance, I went through all the paperwork, the stress of getting funding, my visa, housing, and so forth. But honestly, I really haven’t minded doing all of that. In fact, despite the anxiety of starting a Masters of Science (which, growing up, I always said I’d steer clear of) I’m really loving it so far. Sure, the sheer volume of information thrown at us to start has been a bit overwhelming, and the chemistry that has been in some of our lectures has made my head spin, but I wouldn’t change it one bit. Everyone here has been so welcoming and helpful, and there is a real camaraderie to be found in such a small program. We’ve gotten our first set of artifacts – Roman coins – and I have confidence in my ability to research and treat them. And settling into the lab kind of felt like coming home in a way, as if it’s always been waiting for me. And I suppose it has, because I always knew I’d end up right where I needed to be, and right now I need to here at Cardiff University, getting the education that will become the foundation of my career in the field of conservation.
All photographs are courtesy of Aly Singh.