Off the bench and out of the box: stories of unconventional and allied careers in conservation

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Image courtesy of Emily MacDonald-Korth

Forward by Sharra Grow

This past spring I was invited back to my graduate program to speak on a panel of fellow alumni who have taken unconventional career paths in conservation. After the event I realized this topic deserved a larger conversation within our profession, demonstrating the many directions we can (and should) take as conservators and how pursuing opportunities off the beaten path benefit the field of cultural heritage preservation as well as related and allied professions. I have gathered stories from gracious colleagues down in Chile, up north in the United States, and from Western Australia all the way to Victoria. We only stand to benefit from an increase in professional diversity, and, as demonstrated below, the possibilities are endless.

Emily MacDonald-Korth

Conservators have a deeper and more intimate understanding of art than most, including other art professionals. While bench conservation is an imperative part of material preservation, art conservators have more to offer the art world.

A traditional path out of graduate school took me to the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles for several years where I worked on projects such as the conservation of and research into Roman wall paintings at the archaeological site of Herculaneum, David Alfaro Siqueiros’s monumental mural, América Tropical, and the historic Eames House. The next phase of my career has been all entrepreneurial. I founded a company, Longevity Art Preservation, which specializes in conservation and analysis of fine art and historic finishes. My company has been hired to analyze and treat paintings by masters such as Willem de Kooning, Pablo Picasso, and Frida Kahlo. Next, I created and founded Art Preservation Index®, an art-data startup. A patent-pending invention, APIx is the first of its kind and was designed to standardize the measurement of stability risks of paintings and other types of artwork that may deteriorate over time. My newest project, a collaboration with the computer science department at University of North Carolina-Charlotte, is a recommender system for the pricing of fine art. Driven by sentiment analysis and honed by machine learning, the system aims to be the fastest, easiest, and most accurate appraisal tool on the market.

I see myself as a representative for conservation no matter what role I am in and consistently educate my colleagues regarding preservation considerations. Perhaps most importantly, branching out beyond the typical boundaries of conservation creates a platform to further awareness of cultural heritage preservation.

Maeva Schwend

When I returned to my home country after finishing my studies in textile conservation at the University of Applied Sciences in Cologne, Germany, I couldn’t find a post at a museum and at that time was unable to establish my own private practice. This made me open myself to work in adjacent fields.

While I am a textile conservator, I currently have several jobs that do not include textile conservation; I teach a class on textiles at a design school as well as an introductory course on textiles at the conservation program at the Universidad de Chile. I also work part time at a Site of Conscience (Villa Grimaldi, a former extermination center during Pinochet’s dictatorship, now turned into a commemorative park) where I am in charge of the objects collections (mainly construction vestiges, barely any textiles). The work at this place is mainly preventive conservation. As in any low-income institution, you end up doing a lot of work outside your specialty. Because this collection represents such a sensitive

subject, I’ve had to deepen my knowledge of the history of that period and build a respectful, delicate rapport with the survivors and relatives of those who were murdered at this site; this can be very emotionally demanding though also enriching.

I am the only conservator working at a Site of Conscience in Chile and have been trying to come to terms with the particularities of performing conservation at a site that is not just a museum, but is also a site where people come to remember major events that took place.

Coming from a field where the objects speak to the visitor through their beauty, technique, or history, I find myself now in a place where the testimony of the survivors is the main subject, and the objects are mere vehicles for this narrative.

In countries like Chile, there is still a lot to be done in the field of conservation. We are still learning how to best preserve our heritage; Western conventions of restoration and conservation often don’t make sense in a country with few resources in this field. We have to be flexible and creative in the sense that we need to find good low-budget solutions to most of our preservation problems.

I do miss working with textiles and sometimes get the feeling I’m being left behind in the developments of my career. On the other hand, I’ve learned much in other areas, such as history and social sciences, and there has been a lot of interdisciplinary work which I very much appreciate. I also think countries like Chile are often not able to place specialized conservators. Here it is necessary to know a little bit of everything—from conservation to collections management to museography—in order to fit into what is needed.

Robin Hodgson

As one of the very first people to refer to themselves as a conservator of furniture (and by extension, wooden objects) at a time when the profession of conservation was in its infancy, I have, from the get-go, had to invent my own way, to create my techniques, to research and develop treatment systems. I’ve had to be an engineer, a chemist, an art historian, and a highly skilled woodworker; I had to find my own way into this profession. As with all things, we are only limited by our imagination, and I was blessed with a very active and vivid imagination.

The basis of my career is the embracing of life-long learning; this is a pursuit that I will always be in, looking for ways to improve what and how I do things. This has led me to designing and manufacturing specialist conservation equipment, using my established knowledge of what we as conservators do, how we do it, why we do it, and indeed the environment in which we work.

For me, I believe I can make a far greater impact in conservation through the development of new improved technology for my professional colleagues than I can as a conservator working at the bench on wooden objects. This is just as well, because this specialty has pretty well died in Australia due to government cut backs and the drastic loss of value in “brown furniture.”

My recommendation to all conservators is to play to your strengths; do what you do the best you can and keep looking for ways to do it better. A saying I use is, “Good, better, best, never let it rest ‘til your good is better and your better, best.” To this traditional Australian saying, I add “repeat" as a post script. Conservation is an incredibly diverse profession, as we all know, and to be resilient and strong, we need a diverse skill set. Thinking “out-of-the-box” is a good way to ensure this.

Ian MacLeod

My background includes a PhD in the electrochemistry of metal fluorides dissolved in liquid anhydrous hydrogen fluoride.  After blowing myself up making organometallic catalysts at the University of Glasgow, and a few years at Murdoch University doing copper electrochemistry in aqueous acetonitrile, I joined the Western Australian Museum in Fremantle as a research officer looking at copper corrosion on historic shipwrecks. Over the next 38 years, I moved from being a bench conservator—having learned on the job—to a curator of conservation, head of the department, and a series of jobs with increasing management responsibility that culminated with me as executive director of the Fremantle museums.

Now this is perhaps not a standard run for a conservator but it all happened because my catch cry was, “YES, but first we will need to do x, y and z.”  Conservation became the can-do department; we solved people’s problems, facilitated exhibitions, and conducted applied research. 

Now I am working seven days a week running my own consultancy business in decay under the name Heritage Conservation Solutions. We find solutions to decay problems in churches, historic buildings, boats, and Aboriginal rock art in remote locations in Western Australia. 

I think that when conservators take on extra roles and responsibilities, we show that we are not a narrowly focused group of professionals but are, rather, always looking out to find new and clever solutions to complex problems.  It is all about finding new critical pathways for treatments, for engagement with people and with the collections. 

Josefina López

During my career as a conservator, and even earlier, I developed a deep interest in the broader umbrella of collections care including exhibitions, handling, documentation, science, and preventive conservation. Moreover, I have always been attracted to art museums and collections as a whole, looking to contribute in utilizing their potential for learning and development. There is so much going on behind the scenes in museums, and only a few people get to see that! For this reason, besides using photography for my everyday practice as a tool for observation and documentation of various processes, I use photography for communicating visually how I see conservation, for sharing my passions, and as a powerful tool for engaging others.

Some years ago I was commissioned by the Chilean Government to photograph all national museums, from north to south, to create the best possible image of these institutions. This project also became a personal survey of the museum situation in my country. More on the artistic side of my career, I recently had a beautiful solo show entitled 1/15 of silence, which displayed part of a photographic series about people in museums and the timeless moments experienced in front of great works of art in exhibition spaces around the world. This process was, no wonder, influenced by my conservation awareness, and the exhibition revealed that double-sided perspective.

From having been a photographer in my early days I know that I can document something very precisely, and this can be very useful for research purposes. Moreover, during a shortage of work opportunities in one area, I know there is always an alternative path to still work on what I love.

Conservation is a problem-solving practice and has so many facets to it. You need to think out of the box, and get the bigger picture; even if you are working on a painting in a small room, you can consider where it will go or how it will be hung or lit. These are questions that we need to at least have in mind. This you can only achieve by exploring and connecting with other related fields, meeting specialists from other areas, and blending good ideas and practices to achieve better solutions for everyone.

Yadin Larochette

I was running a private practice in textile conservation, and it was important to me to stay connected to developments in the field. I joined the Board of the North American Textile Conservation Conference as one way to stay up-to-date and, at the same time, expand my network of colleagues. The conference, which is organized and hosted by Board members in Canada, the United States, and Mexico, is bilingual (English and Spanish). One of my goals while on the Board was to secure funding to support attendance of Latin American colleagues, as exchange rates and wage disparities make it prohibitive for them to attend otherwise. Thanks to a recommendation by Debbie Hess Norris, Chair of the Art Conservation Department at the University of Delaware, I reached out to Tru Vue (a manufacturer of acrylic and glass glazing for fine art framing and exhibit case fabrication) as part of those efforts. They invest in the conservation field in a number of ways, including sponsorships and scholarships towards professional development.  Fortuitously they were looking for a part-time consultant to expand the market in Latin America, and it turned out to be a perfect fit to augment my private practice.

When a full-time position with Tru Vue became available 3 years later, I was ready to shift completely from textile conservation treatments, where I was connecting threads on literal cloth, to a position connecting people within the metaphorical fabric of museum and art professionals. Now I help build and manage relationships with clients ranging from large distributors to small business owners; end users such as art conservators, preparators, curators, and collections managers; and private collectors of art and historic documents. Serving as a consultant and technical point of contact, I help clients address product application challenges.
Exposure to various professionals in the art world with multiple perspectives has allowed me to gain a broader understanding of where concerns overlap and where they don’t. This, in turn, has led me to be far more aware of how our language within conservation can be interpreted (and in some cases misinterpreted) by those outside of our profession. Each profession within the art world has its own language, and understanding that language is paramount to being able to effectively communicate and connect. This concept can not only lead us to directly offering our services as conservators, but also to influencing decisions that help our field in the long run.

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This past spring I was invited back to my graduate program to speak on a panel of fellow alumni who have taken unconventional career paths in conservation. After the event I realized this topic deserved a larger conversation within our profession, demonstrating the many directions we can (and should) take as conservators and how pursuing opportunities off the beaten path benefit the field of cultural heritage preservation as well as related and allied professions.
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