Discussing Portfolios with The C Word

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In the mind of a conservator. Image by Jenny Mathiasson, courtesy of The C Word Podcast.

By Kloe Rumsey

The most common route between article and podcast episode is to start with the article and then bring it to discussion and make a podcast episode out of it, but here I will be doing the opposite.

On 15 May 2019, we at the C Word Podcast released episode 5 of season 5 “Portfolio Extravaganza”, and nearly a year on, we are teaming up with IIC’s News in Conservation to bring this topic to the new, and admirable, resources they have been working to publish for conservation students, early-career professionals and beyond. This was actually a topic suggested by our glamourous guest host, emerging paintings conservator and podcast listener Julia Jabłońska. This episode presents a brilliantly proactive approach to improving one’s preparedness for an interview; we can’t predict the exact interview questions, but we can make sure that our portfolios represent our professional work as well as possible.

It turns out that it was rather a shock to our younger selves that a conservation career would require something belonging more to the world of graphic design, and we may not be the only people for whom this seemed somewhat of a barrier.

I was very lucky, personally, not only for coming from an art background to start with, but also for having the creation of a portfolio as part of my conservation studies at Cardiff University. I have Jane Henderson to thank for that, as with so many other things. But it still wasn’t an easy process. There is an expectation that a portfolio will somehow summarise both your career and your personal identity at the same time, as well as being professional, well turned out and easy to read and digest for a potential employer.

There is also the problem of standardisation; we have all studied in different ways, produced different quantities and types of work, and ‘portfolio’ means very different things to all of us. Host Christina Roseik, for example, produced an academic portfolio during her degree program that was so large it formed volumes, whereas mine was so spare, in both practical and extracurricular work, that it was barely a pamphlet.

So what is a portfolio supposed to be? Christina makes an excellent point: the taken-for-granted ideal of a before-and-after photo pair with descriptive text may not actually be of much interest to an interviewer, nor indeed much help to the interviewee, and perhaps there is more benefit from a more visual representation of one’s working practice.

Julia also points out that there are a great number of things beyond complete object treatment projects that may be presented visually, particularly for conservators who do not often work in this way and for whom other aspects of collections care are their core specialism. As she says, this is also relevant for the emerging conservator, as volunteering and temporary contract roles rarely provide an opportunity to fully complete a nice, juicy piece of bench work with lovely before-and-after photos.

But, we are getting ahead of ourselves. What is the purpose of a portfolio? We can all agree that it must be well designed, easy and quick to interact with, and populated with well taken photographs that demonstrate competence and an attention to detail. But what should we be presenting about ourselves? Should we attempt to present our personalities? Or should we keep it professional and allow our riveting and engaging conversation to do the work?

Jenny Mathiasson, our artist and chief of professional whimsy, used her apparently boundless and imaginative artistic skills to introduce personal touches into her portfolio in the form of small illustrations and icons. I think this is a wonderful idea, but in practice, Jenny found that she had a difficult time with the other trappings of portfolio advice she’d been given (such as the large folder and the flashy paper). When it comes down to it, the real success stories are found in the flexibility one can achieve by producing something that can be tailored to the individual job and institution.

Remaining up to date and reflective is key advice for interviewing and CV writing, as well as for developing a portfolio. Julia gives us great advice in this respect; she reflects back on each day or week, considering what she’s achieved and what she’s learned. This is very important for emerging professionals, mid-career, and later career conservators alike; we never stop learning and there is always something to pin down and take note of for a future interview or career opportunity.

At the end of the day, a portfolio can be something comforting and familiar. Early career conservators don’t need to worry about not having theirs full of huge and ground-breaking treatments; it’s not expected, and it’s often not required. What we can include are the key accomplishments we want to convey to an interviewer, laying out project details as guide posts for ourselves as well as for potential employers. Those of us who suffer from interview nerves and the dreaded brain-blank when in front of a panel can use this as an opportunity to prepare in advance, using the portfolio to kick a panic-stricken brain back into gear. How do we cram all this wonderful information in then? On the topic of layout and organisation there are many different ways of doing this, and each have their benefits. You may want to organise by projects, materials, types of treatments or preventive and interventive conservation. My personal portfolio is organised chronologically like a CV and, although I’m considering a drastic up-date, I’ve found the familiarity of seeing my career laid out visually very comforting in an interview situation.

This all shapes up to the interview and portfolio process taking up a huge amount of time, and we at the C Word urge employers to consider this when they provide candidate feedback following an interview. The more detailed the better!

With growing competition at recruitment, there have been signs of the portfolio playing an even larger part, forming presentation components of the interview or even being requested in a digital format at the point of application. There is pressure to photographically record everything one does in this new ‘photo or it didn’t happen’ atmosphere, which causes problems for those of us who work alone or, indeed, for anyone who can’t halt all work for a photo opportunity. It is also tricky, in this respect, to illustrate the elements of a conservator’s role that are not bench work. When a posted job description includes mainly tasks such as people management, collections moves or the revision of procedures, what is the benefit of presenting a portfolio full of treatments?

For this episode we were very grateful for Twitter responses from both sides of the interview table that perfectly summarise the topic. Portfolios, though daunting, are an excellent tool for both interviewer and interviewee. With lots of photos and succinct treatment or project information, they can act as grounding, visual CVs that can focus a nervous mind.

Though it may be trickier to illustrate non-treatment work, there are plenty of options for including reports, schedules or letters; and there is always the option of including photos of activities or event posters. Although the lack of rules can be
scary, this freedom allows us to curate our own take on our professional lives, and we can express ourselves in the way that we feel most comfortable and able to do so. Digital or printed, our portfolios can be worked and re-worked and developed as we develop ourselves.

These are some of the ideas that we discussed in the “Portfolio Extravaganza” episode:

1. Lots of high-quality photos of treatments and activities.
2. Choose small amounts of text over full essays.
3. Where text is included, make sure it covers information that will be useful to you and your interviewer such as materials, goals, and reflections.
4. Non-treatment activities CAN be presented in the form of photographs or copies of reports, risk assessments, etc.
5. Your layout can vary depending on your experience and way of working, don’t feel the need to stick to a list of individual treatments or projects.
6. Consider including a less traditional talking point such as a problematic project.
7. If you’ve had the opportunity to do something unusual, put it in!
8. Consider going digital if the tech is available to you; it may save you valuable time and resources.
9. An element of layout flexibility can help you to tailor your portfolio to the specific role you are interviewing for.
10. Listen to our “Emerging Professionals 2” episode 4 in season 2 in which employers give us their thoughts on what makes a good portfolio *wink*.

An alumni of Cardiff University, Kloe Rumsey now works at the People's History Museum in Manchester and is a proud host of the C Word Podcast. She also maintains her claim as the UK's only belly dancing conservator.

(Read the full article in the April-May 2020 "News in Conservation" Issue 77, p. 36-39)

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So what is a portfolio supposed to be? Christina makes an excellent point: the taken-for-granted ideal of a before-and-after photo pair with descriptive text may not actually be of much interest to an interviewer, nor indeed much help to the interviewee, and perhaps there is more benefit from a more visual representation of one’s working practice.
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