Life as a Private Conservator vs. Working in the Public Sector26 August 2017
This summer has seen many of the Cardiff University students on summer placements and internships. As I headed into my internship at Bolton Museum I expected and prepared myself for a lot of practical desk work within the lab. While I absolutely love doing work in the lab, I was thrilled to discover that my supervisor had organized a few days for me to spend away from the museum, working with private conservators. The opportunity to witness the differences and pick the brains of these women who have set up their own businesses successfully was something I was eager to take on, especially with the ever changing job climate of the heritage sector. Since this was such a useful and special opportunity I thought I would share with you all some of the things I learned.
The first private conservator I was able to spend a day with was Julia Dalzell at Quarry Bank Mill, a National Trust site, learning about preventive art conservation. The second conservator was Jacqueline Hyman, a textile conservator, and her husband and business partner, Mike, at their studio for a few days. Julia is an oil paintings conservator for the Cheshire area and also does work in Northern Ireland. As we were chatting I learned that she also does film conservation, but we didn’t have much time to talk about that. Although Jacqui’s studio is in Altrincham near Manchester, she works across northern England.
I noted a few similarities between the two women. First, both have specialized in a particular niche of conservation and both knew very early on what the niche would be. Jacqui even told me she knew at around 14-16 years old what she wanted and started taking the appropriate courses. Second, both women have strong personalities. They have an abundance of confidence but also no fear about admitting when something is beyond their skills, are respectful but firm about their opinions on how things should be done and what they need in order to work properly, and are open to listening to new ideas and understand that the field is constantly evolving. Third, I noted that they both have taken extra specialized courses well after they finished uni. These women admit they do not know everything and are willing to learn from those who do or, in the case of jobs that come their way, are able to direct clients to other conservators who are specialized with the necessary skills. My ultimate take away of these similarities is that they both have traits that make them excellent role models as professionals within the field.
What were some of the differences between private sector and public sector conservators and how they work?
1 – Who they answer to. Working in the Bolton Museum, I found that it was ultimately the local council who funded most of the projects. While it was wonderful to see the local government supporting the heritage sector, I noticed that often times projects and spending had to be justified in a way that would appeal to the government. And when the council asked for something from the museum, such as setting up a small display at town hall, there was 100% no question in anyone’s mind about it happening. Private conservators answer to their clients wants and needs but are also more able to turn down jobs they either don’t feel confident or ethically comfortable doing or because they simply don’t want to work on certain types of objects, i.e. modern materials versus materials of the past. Conservators in museums can also advise on ethics and refuse to work on certain objects if they feel uncomfortable but otherwise they have to work on whatever materials are asked. Also, the standards and ethics of museum conservation often differ from those of private clients. For instance, in a museum you might only bring back a metallic object to a certain level of shine so that the patina would be kept safe. A private client with the same object may want it as bright and shiny as the day it was made.
2 – How they classify themselves. Jacqui is a Textile conservator and Julia is an Oil Paintings conservator while my supervisor at Bolton Museum, Pierrette Squires, and most other conservators I have met in museums, considers herself an Objects conservator. While Objects conservators often have a specialty they know more about than others, they do not work solely on items of that one specialty. Many small to mid-size museums, I have learned, often only employ one conservator who will need to work on all of the objects that museum has. Thus the conservator needs to be flexible and usually isn’t working with the type of object they have specialized in, if they have specialized. While private conservators do find that they need to work with many types of material within their specialties, their objects are all of a similar type. For example, while I was with Jacqui I worked on a Napoleonic War Uniform that was made of wool, silver thread, and leather. These all required different techniques and knowledge, but it was all, ultimately, textile based. Pierrette specializes in conservation of human remains and ethics, but only gets the chance to implement this when she’s working on a mummy or slides of blood samples. Often, she’s working on plaster models of mammals, bronze statues of Egyptian gods, and specimens from the entomology and natural history collections.
3 – Conservation vs Restoration. Most of the time conservators shy away from restoration and focus solely on conservation. While this makes sense and is simple to stick to in a museum setting, often time private conservators are asked to do restoration work on objects. What’s the difference? Conservation aims to stabilize the object so that it will deteriorate much slower than it would otherwise (stopping all deterioration is impossible) without adding to the object in any way that’s not required for stability. Restoration aims to bring the object back to its original state as much as possible and often includes adding to the object where pieces are missing now but once would have been. I noticed this while I was working with Jacqui on the Napoleonic uniforms. I was working on patching moth holes in the jacket and trousers so that they would no longer be visible to the casual observer so that their interpretation of the object isn’t marred by previous damage. At the same time, bullet holes were left on the garments as part of the story that the uniforms told, as well as blood staining. Since damage deemed not pertinent to the story of the uniforms was concealed, one could say that the uniforms were restored. Conservation and restoration are not necessarily at odds, but many conservators have strong opinions about the place of each in the heritage sector. When going to a museum you expect to see the original material as much as possible, even if that means looking at a pottery vessel that has sherds missing. However, clients of private conservators often want a full restoration of their object (e.g. a chair that has been in the family for five generations and they want they want the worn upholstery to look new).
4 – Access to Materials. One thing I definitely took away from my time with Jacqui in particular is that, while you can get most products you need to work, sometimes you cannot get materials you need to do your job. Jacqui only had a very little IMS (denatured alcohol) left and was struggling to find a supplier that would sell to her. Even though she is a longtime conservator and runs her own business she still finds that many suppliers are unwilling to sell products, especially chemicals, to individuals. There are legal issues such as permits that need to be obtained that are easier to get as an institution such as a museum or university. So while it has gotten a little more difficult for everyone to buy such products, it is exponentially more difficult for private conservators.
5 – People Skills. In a museum, conservators are often in their lab working on objects. They interact with colleagues and fellow members of staff for collections care and in the lunch room, and may help out with a public activity here or there but mostly they don’t have much face to face time with the public. Private conservators need excellent people skills as well as conservation skills in order to run a successful business. Private conservation is all about making connections, building your pool of clients, and maintaining your reputation. While museums sometimes hire private conservators to work on a specific project within their specialty, most of the client base of a private conservator comes from the public. This means interacting with the public on a daily basis and having face to face interactions with the people who are employing you. Great people skills will translate to the business side of being a private conservator and boost your reputation as a brand.
Some other things I learned from Julia and Jacqui include:
- Always have business cards available
- If you have to work on site you will probably forget something you need so always have backups
- Working on site where the public can see/talk to you means the job will take twice as long
- Knock on the door of conservation departments everywhere you go, even on vacation, you don’t know what other doors will open for you
- Find your niche that makes you the person people suggest when thinking about needing a conservator
- If you find a niche you love, work will be a pleasure
For more information on my time with Julia Dalzell you can read my post on my personal conservation blog. Likewise I have a post on my time with Jacqueline Hyman as well. If you have any comment, questions, or other points about the differences between private and public sector conservation leave us a comment below!
Big thank you to Julia Dalzell and Jacqui & Mike Hyman for having me shadow and work with them. Thank you also to Pierrette for setting up these incredible opportunities.
All photos are courtesy of Stephanie Whitehead.