Introducing: the MSc year ones, 2016/2017

Clare Lim

Another year, another batch of MSc year one students!

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There are twelve of us this year. We come from Canada, Colombia, Singapore, the UK, and the United States. Our academic backgrounds range from archaeology and chemistry to fine art and biblical studies. For some of us, it hasn’t been so long since we were undergrads, while some of us have had several years of work experience in different fields. But what we are very happy to have in common is a great interest in conservation.

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This year, we will be very busy with lectures, seminars, research projects, lab work, and extra projects.

During lectures, which are delivered by our course coordinators and guest lecturers, we learn about the materials that many objects are made of, and how they are usually conserved. In lab skills sessions, we learn more about specific conservation techniques.

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James Hales demonstrating the application of epoxy resin as an adhesive by capillary action

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Demonstration of a plaster fill on a ceramic object, using dental wax as a mould

We will spend much of our time in the lab working on interventive treatments. Each of us will treat at least ten objects during the year. We have the privilege of working on objects from various collections, including those of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. For each round of object allocations, we get to choose from a selected range of objects. (If more than one person wants the same object, the conflict is settled by very civilised rounds of rock-paper-scissors.) While each object allocated does mean adding another task to a growing list of deadlines, it’s still always exciting to have the opportunity to work on and learn about interesting objects.

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An object allocation session

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Hard at work in the lab

We have access to several analytical techniques at the UCL Institute of Archaeology (IoA), including, but not limited to, Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR), scanning electron microscopy (SEM), and portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometry (pXRF). We use these analytical techniques in our research projects. They are also useful for helping us to find out more about our allocated objects, so that we can make informed conservation decisions.

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An SEM training session with Dr Tom Gregory

Not everything takes place just within the walls of the IoA. We also get to go on trips outside the lab. Click here to read about our fieldwork on Hinemihi, a Maori meeting house, at Clandon Park!

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A visit to the Stone conservation lab at the British Museum

These are just some of the things we will do in our first year in the MSc in Conservation for Archaeology and Museums. Stay tuned for more, and keep an eye on our Facebook page, Twitter and Instagram too!

How is magic done in the lab?

Adriana Paez

Have you ever seen Ratatouille, the 2007 movie by Pixar about the friendship between a rat and a garbage boy, told in a captivating story about food, solidarity, and the pursuit of happiness and perfection sought after in French haute cuisine? Well, as conservators we have a lot in common with chefs. Let me tell you why, and I promise not to be too cheesy!

ratatouille-picScene “Keep your station clean”, Ratatouille, 2007. Youtube

We spend a lot of time in the lab during the first year of the MSc in Conservation at UCL – at least 729 hours, 63% more “classroom” time if compared to the average timetable of a MSc student in the Institute of Archaeology of 264 hours. This situation inevitably changes our perception of what we are doing, strengthens the bonds among the group, increases shared moments around a cuppa or a coffee (I’m Colombian), and transforms the lab into our second home, as one of the strongest identity references for the students of conservation.

Katie, author of our first Hinemihi blog post (see here), once posted a very illustrative picture on Facebook with a caption that read “I’m not saying our lab is dangerous … But we do have more warning triangles than most other doors.” The lab is a space of learning where you need to balance rigorous behaviour and sets of instructions with great doses of creativity and experimentation, just as in a professional kitchen. Like medieval alchemists, we pursue the elusive goal of “transforming lead into gold” with conservation treatments, i.e. reshaping decay into glory through the assessment of the significance or values that must be preserved.

warning-trianglesOur “warning triangles” at the lab door.

How does this happen precisely? Every few weeks pick up an object that embodies an inspiring set of problems. Objects are allocated to us and a precious exchange occurs: each of them allows us to discover how it has survived the ravages of time, and through its materiality allows us to learn about the chemistry of decay and about conservation materials. We can grasp an idea of the values that have saved it from being discarded in this time in which things are constantly being disposed of and renewed. In exchange, conservators devote precious time and skill to investigating them, removing layers of dust, looking into their damage, sometimes identifying previous conservation treatments, and so we apply our best knowledge to transform them, letting them have a new life afterwards.

As in haute cuisine, such a double-edged deal is rooted in a deep connection and understanding of the objects, giving a formal result that can be evaluated according to the highest standards of academia and owner’s satisfaction – or food critics and customers, depending on the case. And just as in haute cuisine, there is a synchrony between time and energy that cannot be wasted, roles and responsibilities necessitating order, cleanliness, high quality supplies (thankfully, we don’t need to haggle with a provider to have fresh products), cutting and heating tools, and working at individual stations to finally produce results as a group.

Last but not least, there is a scene in the movie that reminds me of one of my most beloved aspects of conservation. In this scene, Colette tells Linguini: “People think that haute cuisine must be snooty, so chefs also must be snooty. But that is not so… we are artists. Pirates who can cook, aren’t we?” And the same thing happens in our profession. Every fortnight, some of the students present to the rest of the group her journey in the conservation world (yes, here conservation also remains predominantly a female-led career, taught mainly by men… but this is another story!). And it is mesmerising to know how diverse and enriching our paths are as we strive to become professional conservators, embracing the possibilities for the future.

So, in a nutshell, here’s where everything begins!

Keep your eyes peeled for more stories from the lab, coming soon!

PS: Thanks to Clara and Jan for the proofreading!