Work Placements – transitioning from the UCL conservation lab to a professional institution

Veronica Ford

So far in this blog we have seen a lot of stuff from the current inhabitants of the UCL conservation lab. As you know from Megan’s introductory post, the MSc in Conservation for Archaeology and Museums is actually a two year course.

“But what about last years’ lab students? What are they doing?” I hear you cry.

In the second year of the MSc for Conservation for Archaeology and Museums, students are assigned work placements lasting a total of 10 months to give them experience of the reality of the working environment (in other words – it’s a wake up call!).

My placement has been divided between two institutions. Between September and December, I spent time with the preventive conservation team within the Bodleian Libraries. From January onwards, I’ve moved on to the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, both institutions located in Oxford.

The past six months have been a massive learning curve!

When people think of conservation they might imagine a lab-coated conservator gluing an object back together.

Something like this. Which sometimes is the case, nevertheless (photo courtesy of Naomi Bergmans).

Something like this. Which sometimes is the case, nevertheless (photo courtesy of Naomi Bergmans).

But in reality the role is far more diverse than that!

The two institutions I have been hosted at have been quite different (though very close to each other geographically). At the Bodleian, I was part of the preventive conservation team, ensuring that objects are kept in good environmental conditions (including temperature, humidity, light exposure, and so on) and that they are well stored and handled in order to minimise damage. I was also involved with the environmental proving of a new library building. This meant consulting with builders, contractors, other conservators, librarians, and curators. It also required a scientific approach to understanding the environmental factors that might adversely affect the storage of library materials. As part of this we implemented a dust monitoring programme in the new library, and carried out research into pest eradication.

The view from my office in the Bodleian wasn't half bad (photo courtesy of Veronica Ford).

The view from my office in the Bodleian wasn’t half bad (photo courtesy of Veronica Ford).

At the Ashmolean, however, I have focused more specifically on interventive conservation (i.e. the active treatment of deteriorated and broken objects). In addition to object treatments, I have been involved in a broad range of museum activities including pest monitoring, condition assessments, loans and exhibition installations.

No complaints about my view from the Ashmolean either (photo courtesy of Veronica Ford).

No complaints about my view from the Ashmolean either (photo courtesy of Veronica Ford).

The two experiences combined have shown me the true breadth and diversity of activities with which conservators are involved. Basically – we need to be involved whenever there is a risk that an object might be/has been damaged. Conservation treatment work needs to be fitted around this, as conservators are often required to jump in and get involved with other museum activities at the last minute. This is in contrast with my experience working in the conservation lab at UCL, where the majority of my time was spent actively working on object treatments.

At UCL, I was encouraged to gain experience with extensive research, complex analysis and challenging treatments. The need to develop hand skills and experience meant I was encouraged to undertake complicated treatments. This contrasts to some degree with my experience at a working institution, where the focus of treatment decision making is defined by the needs of the institution, and where time and resources may be limited.

Two previously restored ceramics with two different approaches (before treatment). Left - that undergoing treatment at the Ashmolean. Right - that treated at UCL (photos courtesy of Veronica Ford).

Two previously restored ceramics with two different approaches (before treatment). Left – that undergoing treatment at the Ashmolean. Right – that treated at UCL, Copyright UCL Institute of Archaeology Collections (photos courtesy of Veronica Ford).

This is clear in my approach to two archaeological ceramics both with broken Plaster of Paris fills, one of which I treated at UCL and one of which I am currently treating at the Ashmolean. My approach at UCL was thorough: I removed the old adhesive from the ceramic and reconstructed it from the beginning with conservation adhesive (Paraloid B72*), creating structural fills only where necessary. At the Ashmolean, I have decided to replace and repaint the broken fills, avoiding a complete deconstruction. This conserves time and resources and offers the least interventive approach, whilst still stabilising the object and fulfilling treatment goals.

I have learnt that it is necessary, in a professional context, to be pragmatic and realistic. This however need not be an obstacle to more in-depth research projects. The Ashmolean is always looking for new ways of researching and analysing the collection and recently received funding to carry out analysis on 500 objects belonging to the recently acquired Wellby collection.

It is hard to be glamorous when you work on a building site: moving special collection material into the new library building (photos courtesy of Veronica Ford and Naomi Bergmans).

It is hard to be glamorous when you work on a building site: moving special collection material into the new library building (photos courtesy of Veronica Ford and Naomi Bergmans).

At times conservation work can seem unglamorous or routine. But such activities are absolutely vital for the preservation of collections. For instance, an important preventive conservation activity is condition checking new acquisitions, to ensure that they are not actively deteriorating and can be safely stored with other collection material. This can sometimes result in rather difficult and less pleasant working conditions.

Spores for thought: checking new acquisitions for mould at the Bodleian (photo courtesy of Veronica Ford).

Spores for thought: checking new acquisitions for mould at the Bodleian (photo courtesy of Veronica Ford).

Conservation is often a controversial activity and it can be hard to balance established conservation approaches with increasing pressure on heritage institutions to maximise access to, and use of, collections. I am finding that essential conservation skills include the ability to negotiate with others, to communicate conservation needs clearly and accurately, and also to show willingness to be flexible and compromise where necessary. Although, in theory, this is clear to many conservators in training, the lesson cannot truly be learnt without direct experience.

* An ethyl methacrylate copolymer. Just in case you are wondering.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to my lovely work placement hosts at the Bodleian and Ashmolean and to Naomi Bergmans for some of the photographs.

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