Being a conservator in a museum or gallery offers big rewards for the big commitment.
Conservation for many is a mysterious department in a museum or art gallery, part-science lab, part-research library, part collection-holding and registration area. We can’t help but conjure images of the popular television series CSI – all white coats, latex gloves, and wow moments.
ArtsHub caught up with Debbie Ward, Head of Conservation, National Gallery of Australia (NGA) to set us straight on what sits behind the high security door.
She finds our observation that her workplace has a crime scene investigation ambience amusing. ‘When CSI started the first show was about a conservator who was poisoned,’ she laughed, observing that the show may have been the profession's mass appeal moment.
But even if the blood is all red paint, conservators are detectives looking for clues, scientists weighing the evidence and archeologists seeking to reconstruct the past. ‘We like the drama of finding something, like “Wow there’s a whole other painting under this painting”. They are the moments when conservators get really excited,’ said Ward.
Ward works with a team of 28 conservators at the NGA, who typically are working on fifty items at any one time, and treat around 3 - 4,000 pieced in a year.
She said that any conservator would agree that the best part of their job is the privilege of working with these artworks.
‘You get a bit blasé after a while when you walk past it 20 times in the lab, but when you realise that you have access to things that not many people on the face of this earth do you, it’s a pretty special profession,’ said Ward.
‘People don’t usually start conservation and then abandon it,’ she added.
Ward studied archaeology at the University of Sydney and, as a student, helped at the Nicholson Museum. ‘This is where I got interested in conservation. When I finished my degree they just opened a course in Canberra.’
Conservation is expensive for universities to teach, especially if they concentrate on practical skills. The Australian National University in Canberra stopped training conservators for fine arts in 2002, but has recommenced the degree for heritage conservation. Melbourne University offers a Masters in Conservation, but it is a more theoretical course. Ward said. 'You don’t get those years of hands-on experience.'
People come to conservation from all sorts of backgrounds. Within Ward's team she has an ex-lawyer, a retrained financial manager from the banking sector, and others who have come from arts jobs.
‘People tend to specialize, because you need different skill sets for different things. You usually train in two areas, and then fall into wherever you can get a job,’ explained Ward.
What skills are needed as a conservator?
With 35-years professional experience, Ward had no trouble summing up the career checklist for a conservator:
- A good level of manual dexterity.
- Lots of patience - you may be sitting there for hours and days on end.
- Very high attention to detail.
- A strong understanding of chemistry, a stumbling block for many aspirants but essential to the profession.
The greatest challenge facing any conservator, said Ward, is time. 'There’s never enough of it.'
‘We really could continue working for 20-30 years doing our job even if we didn’t open to the pubic because the collection will always need care. Things were made of materials that will get weaker over time – so there is always work to do.’
‘You have to meet the exhibition schedules, and the loans schedules, and you do have to provide care to the Collection because some things that don’t go on loan still need care, but we build it all in so it gets dealt with.'
She added that fitting in enough research is difficult.
But the flipside of time is the bond that is build with a work over those many hours, days and months.
‘It is a bit sad sometimes when you finish,’ she said. ‘You spend more time on it often than what the artist did.’
Ward said that this connection that a conservator builds with a piece helps, given the time put into the work. They are like serial monogamists with a chain of intense love affairs.
Is there availability of work?
In a small and highly specialised profession jobs come up erratically but there is sometimes more jobs than suitably qualified conservators. 'Some fields we have had to bring people in from overseas,' said Ward.
While traditional conservation work is hands-on, there is also a capacity to diversify. The NGA has a trained conservator who is exclusively focused on loans and negotiates with potential borrowers about the environment in which they will store and present a work. Another trained conservator is the Gallery’s Preventive Officer, working with with building services and events to ensure that the condition of the Collection is maintained across daily activities related to site.
‘And then there are research scientists within conservation,’ she added. ‘A lot of people want to work at certain institutions and not others. I think there is a bit of the collection-driven career path.’
Ward also made the distinction between museums and fine art galleries, and their individual needs for conservators differ considerably.
‘Fine Arts is perhaps the most difficult and challenging because you can’t change much; you really do have to stick to high standards of traditional conservation, not like a museum that might be able to replace a leg on a table – we cant do that. There are no short cuts.'
How has the profession changed?
Ward said that while the profession has shrunk, the flow of information across the profession has increased.
‘When I very first started here 34 years ago to get information was so desperate. Someone would go off to a conference and everyone would madly read the papers when they come back. Now there is the international communication register where people put up questions - “I’ve got this problem” - and so that information flow is immediate.’
She added: ‘There are less places that do the really detailed start-to-finished treatments today because of staffing cuts. A lot of it is more just preventative conservation.’
While technology and the internet have catapulted the profession forward, and institutional funding cuts perhaps are increasingly holding it back across the broader sector, Ward said that there another consideration that had been introduced.
‘Now there is this idea of “significance” – we will treat it if it is considered significant. Our big issue is what one person thinks is significant might change in the future. With different trends how do you know what is going to be significant – especially with contemporary – time is the only thing that can tell.
‘Because of the Gallery Act, everything here (at the NGA) has to be treated the same and everyone from the day they start are reminded that tax payers pay our salary, and tax payers bought this Collection. So you just have to work on all of them to get the best possible outcome,’ she concluded.