Submitted by Sharra Grow on
By Isobel Griffin
Mel Houston died on 1 January 2023, having established a career as one of the UK’s leading preventive conservators. Friends and colleagues have helped to put together a record of Mel’s career and achievements.
Like many conservators, Mel didn’t come directly to conservation. Her first degree was in biochemistry after which she worked as a lab technician for four years while completing a post-graduate Diploma in Biomedical Sciences. She then undertook a Diploma in Photography and Art at Edinburgh College of Art and subsequently a First-Class Honours Degree in Photography at Napier University. Following this she worked for several years as a photographer, most memorably at the Edinburgh Dungeon visitor attraction where her duties included feeding human blood to the leeches!
In the early 2000s Mel moved to Glasgow and became a visitor assistant at the National Trust for Scotland’s (NTS) Glasgow Tenement House. She discovered the world of conservation, and while working for NTS she completed, with distinction, Northumbria University’s MA in preventive conservation. Mel then secured an Icon/Heritage Lottery Fund internship at NTS, followed by various roles including project conservator for the new Robert Burns Birthplace Museum and several years as NTS’s national preventive conservator. In this role Mel worked alongside three conservators (forming the Collections Conservation Service) supporting over 50 properties in the care and conservation of historic interiors and collections.
Mel’s achievements at NTS were many and magnificent: installing and upgrading environmental monitoring systems; assimilating heritage science research outcomes into NTS preventive conservation practice; delivering high quality training to property staff; supervising and mentoring a host of grateful interns; and implementing a comprehensive programme of Integrated Pest Management. As well as major capital projects, Mel was involved in complex collections care projects at some of NTS’s most remote and challenging historic properties such as Canna House. Her work with the property’s Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) collection involved developing a significance-based collections review assessment to inform conservation and curatorial decisions and dealing with bottles of cyanide on open display.
In 2020 Mel joined the National Library of Scotland as their first preventive conservator and set about raising standards and developing new initiatives in her usual quiet but determined fashion. She had obtained her professional accreditation from the Institute of Conservation (Icon) in 2013 and served for six years as an Icon Trustee, chairing the Professional Standards and Development committee. She was also a key member of the Technical Committee for the IIC Wellington Congress 2022 where her extensive knowledge and ability to cut to the chase were greatly valued.
Integrated Pest Management was a particular passion for Mel throughout her conservation career, and she developed a national and international reputation for her work. She published in the 2011 proceedings of A Pest Odyssey, 10 Years Later (on the NTS’s slimline and pragmatic approach) and served on the organising committee for the 2021 conference A Pest Odyssey, The Next Generation whose proceedings were published in 2022 by Archetype (eds Suzanne Ryder and Amy Crossman). She had further publications in the proceedings of the 2013 and 2019 IPM conferences alongside reports in the media about various insect pest projects. She was a member of the Royal Entomological Society, the Invertebrate Conservation Trust and Bat Conservation Trust, and she also held the niche qualification of a bat survey licence!
Outside work Mel was a woman of many interests and adventures. Despite having lived in cities for much of her life, she enjoyed being outside amongst nature and spent many holidays farm-sitting for friends in Dunoon. In 2018 she and her partner realised a lifetime’s dream when they bought a large cottage in the Scottish borders, not far from Melrose. The cottage came with several acres of land, much of which had been concreted over for a dog kennels business, but they saw its potential and developed a garden from scratch with a pond, orchard, vegetables and huge greenhouse. Cats and chickens took up residence followed by ducks and geese, and Mel also planned to introduce beehives.
If Mel wasn’t outside, she was likely to be reading in the greenhouse or working on her home brews in the kitchen. In addition to making her own wine, she produced cassis, limoncello and flavoured vodka, which were often given to friends as presents. When she wasn’t at home, she was off travelling the world; she was drawn to far flung and remote places (when choosing a holiday once, she narrowed down her choices to Sutherland, in the far north of Scotland, and Zanzibar off the east coast of Africa).
With the news of Mel’s death, tributes poured in with several common themes. Firstly, Mel’s kindness and patience, as she helped newly graduated conservators navigate through internships and first jobs and mentored conservators preparing for professional accreditation. One colleague recalled that ‘she was so generous with her knowledge and time and helped colleagues to develop their own practice. She was an incredible leader within the Scottish conservation community.’ Connected to this were Mel’s abilities as a trainer; she could make the complex simple and the mundane exciting, and she famously used fortune-telling fish to explain the concept of relative humidity to NTS property staff! She also had impressive analytical and strategic abilities; she could see the big picture while not ignoring the details, she analysed problems objectively and she could identify practical ways of moving forward. Last, but definitely not least, she was funny: she had a dry wit and, as one friend described it, a ‘colossal sense of the absurd’.
But despite her many talents and impressive intellect, Mel was extremely unassuming, and always keen to stress the smallness of her knowledge in relation to the magnitude of things still to be learned. She would be astonished and slightly embarrassed by the outpouring of grief and affection that her death has prompted and much more comfortable in a quiet corner of the greenhouse with a cat on her lap and a glass of whisky on hand.
Charities to which donations can be given on Mel’s behalf:
Scottish Charity Air Ambulance
Bat Conservation Trust
(Read the tribute in the April-May 2023 "News in Conservation" Issue 95, p. 42-43)