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!

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