Alumna Spotlight: Meredith Sweeney17 March 2023
More often than not, we hear that the heritage sector is always having budget cuts. Therefore, some conservation students are getting anxious about getting jobs in the future. Getting their first contract is even more stressful. To help the students with the stressful start of a career, we decided to reach out to an alumna from the Cardiff University conservation department, Meredith Sweeney, to know her experience in the conservation field.
Here is the interview she kindly accepted to do with us. As someone that has recently graduated, I think her insight into the field and her experiences as an emerging conservator are quite interesting and refreshing. She gives quite a few good tips!
What did you study in Cardiff University?
I did both my undergraduate and master’s degree in conservation at Cardiff. My undergrad degree was the BSc “Conservation of Objects in Museums and Archaeology” which gave me a strong background in approaching objects of all different material types and an introduction to analytical techniques. My MSc “Professional Conservation” really helped develop my research and broaden my utilization of analysis to inform treatment decisions.
Have you done any training/studies since the ones at Cardiff?
I haven’t completed any “official” training since graduation, but I’ve taken plenty of continuing professional development workshops through conferences or local conservation groups. Signing up for classes in different art media has also been great for growing my understanding of materials. I’ve loved taking classes in stained glass, printing, embroidery, metal casting, and many others!
Where have you been working since graduating from a conservation program at Cardiff?
I was very fortunate to interview and be offered the opportunity for a 2-year research fellowship at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum outside Washington, D.C. It might sound a bit ‘left field’ after working with so much archaeological material at Cardiff, but the majority of conservators there come from an archaeological/ethnographic background rather than fine arts! I have since been working at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History since early 2022 as an object conservator.
Have you worked as a freelance conservator? Do you have any tips or advice for new conservators entertaining the idea of going into private practice?
Between the end of my fellowship and the start of my current job, I was applying for plenty of jobs at institutions but also set up my own contract conservator company. I only bid on a few contracts but ultimately decided to take the permanent job at American History. I would highly encourage new conservators to look into private practice—it can be very freeing to be able to dictate your hours, projects, etc! I would suggest you talk to several conservators who have been through the process and can guide you on setting up LLC’s, insurance options, how to reply to request for quotes. It can be very daunting and confusing the first time!
How has your experience at Cardiff University impacted your career?
Well, on the personal side, moving to the UK at 17 forced me to grow, be independent, and really develop problem solving skills! The staff and students became a support network, and I met two of my best friends at Cardiff. On the professional side, I’ve had a fairly easy transition in coming to work in the USA because previous Cardiff grads have built such an amazing network of conservators here. I know I can reach out to them at any time and they’re always happy to help.
What do you think is useful to know about the conservation sector when entering the profession of conservator?
Its not always an easy career with instability in contract duration, the depressed wages in the heritage sector, and the sheer amount of knowledge in ethics, material science, chemistry, and art needed to take care of heritage culture. But the work itself and the conservation community who supports each other make it so worth it.
Do you have any advice for recently graduate conservators that want to apply for their firsts postgraduate internship/ fellowship/ contracts?
Don’t get discouraged! It took me over 6 months post-graduation to find my fellowship. I would also recommend not to back yourself into a corner looking for one perfect fit. For example, if you love metals and you have the opportunity to work with plastics, absolutely take it—you will grow in so many ways. Also, hoping from lab to lab can be incredibly informative in different management styles, personality types, and financial backing for projects. It can help you identify what you are looking for long-term.
What has been your favorite conservation-related project so far?
This is a tough one! I’ve been so privileged to have worked on everything from Roman glass to Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 glove to Prince’s Guitar! I think my favourite though, was a taxidermy lion named “Gilmore”. He had a pretty tough life as a lion cub flying with a aviator named Roscoe Turner who later had him stuffed and displayed in his family home. The project involved a lot of analysis to identify previous repairs, structural stability, and possible arsenic contamination (good news—there was none!). As a team, we worked to re-hair him with sympathetically colored and shaped fur from various animals, replaced his whiskers with porcupine hair, and worked with a taxidermist to re-color his coat with conservation-grade dyes to mask light fading. The National Air and Space Museum is planning a series of blogs on his treatment coming out soon!
Do you have anything you would like to add or mention? It can be about anything you want.
Something I would stress to anyone interested in getting into institution-based conservation is the need to take internships or fellowships where you work with the whole collections department team—the mount makers, exhibit designers, curators, etc. They will all need input on conservation needs, and learning about their techniques and expectations early on will really help you later. I never thought I’d be studying case design drawings trying to pinpoint good locations for silica gel while also discussing with the manufacturers about the correct materials or curing protocols while also helping design safe and archival mounts that fit both the case and object. Your work won’t always be benchwork treating objects and flexibility is one of your most useful tools!
I’d also like to say a quick thank you to the entire Cardiff Conservation staff! Their support for their grads is unmatched!