A tale of one conservation professional by Adam M Klupś

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I often recall how on numerous occassions, while still at university, I was forced to explain to newly made friends, entirely unfamiliar with the concept of cultural heritage conservation, that my degree had nothing to do with protecting Bengal tigers or the Amazon rainforests. Neither hugely discouraged nor surprised by the lack of knowledge of my conversationalists, I had tried to talk them to death about contemporary heritage conservation theory and ethics. I was over the moon about every individual who was thus enlightened. Ever since I can remember, I have always been passionate about cultural heritage, but it took me some time to discover conservation. Nonetheless, once I eventually discovered it, it was love at first sight. Somewhere half-way through my BA I finally decided: ‘I want to be a conservator!’ Sounds familiar? Well… A few years on, I am not a conservator after all…

But before I continue my story, I would like to share with the reader that I have been thinking for some time now about putting to paper some of my reflections concerning my personal experience of taking the first steps into the world of conservation. I eventually decided to do so after reading Sarah Giffin’s article: ‘We are the children of the (conservation) revolution’ (NiC, October 2014). Encouraged by a good friend to offer my input to a topic so relevant to all emerging and newly emerged conservation professionals, I am hoping that it will continue a dialogue that other authors will contribute to in the future, in these pages of News in Conservation.
Back to my story then… So, as explained above, my love for conservation might have been love at first sight, but it was not unconditional from the very beginning. I have always been a pragmatist. In fact, I resisted deciding what ‘kind of’ conservator I desired to be. There was simply too much choice! ‘Fine! I will try everything!, I thought. A few years on, I must say, I have sorted this out quite well, thanks to many inspiring people who were willing to guide me, as well as my own initiative and enthusiasm, and of course, a lot of luck. I ended up volunteering at a paintings conservation studio in Cambridge, on archaeological excavation projects in Bulgaria, Turkey, Cyprus, and Wales, and working for private building conservation practices in Scotland and London. In the meantime I got involved in other initiatives, one of the most rewarding of which have been IIC’s Student and Emerging Conservator Conferences started in London in 2011.
The first crisis came early and there were more to come. I was asking myself the same questions again and again: ‘Can I do conservation for the rest of my life?’, ‘Am I any good at what I am doing?’, ‘Will I ever find a job in conservation, which I will fully embrace and dedicate myself to?’ One thing never changed: I knew that no matter what happens I could never bear to see cultural heritage deteriorating, neglected, being vandalised, or destroyed.
Life is full of surprises and disappointments, which often make us see things from different perspectives. Months before I finished my MA degree in Principles of Conservation at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology I realised that I was neither able to afford the tuition fee for the MSc course constituting two-thirds of the full conservation programme offered by the Institute, nor could I study full time for another two years without being able to work in order to support myself. I gradually got used to the thought that I was not going to become a conservator. At least, not at the time. Luckily, meanwhile I secured a part-time job at a museums service run by a local authority.
I spent many long hours thinking about ‘Plan B’. In fact, there were also ‘Plan C’ and other plans on my mind, including leaving the world of conservation for good. However, I kept in touch with the profession; I attended and contributed to conferences, talked to people and listened to, and digested, every piece of advice. I also kept applying for jobs... Over a dozen job applications and a couple of interviews later I have found a role that makes me learn new things every day, and which makes me use all my experience and skills: the same skills, which I acquired studying for my conservation degree and developed in the course of internships and voluntary work. My awareness of conservation ethics, conservation methods and materials helps me to understand work-related publications and reports, write site notes, respond to queries and thoroughly discuss conservation treatment proposals.
Even if spending the rest of my life in a conservation studio might not seem my destiny now, I will always be looking back at my past choices with satisfaction and never with regret, for they made me a‘conservation professional’. In fact, I have always been very fond of the expression ‘conservation professional’. It points directly to the field of conservation and indicates a level of knowledge and awareness. At the same time, the term is not fully defined, but essentially remains very inclusive. To me it embraces everyone whose profession is somehow linked to conserving, as well as protecting cultural heritage in one way or another; be it a preventive conservator caring exclusively for environmental conditions in a county archive, an architect specialising in historic buildings, overseeing repairs to a listed Victorian church or an archaeological conservator consolidating freshly excavated animal bones on the site of a Neolithic settlement. I am proud to be a member of this great community of professionals from many ways of life contributing their knowledge, skills, and interdisciplinary expertise in the quest for conservation and protection of cultural heritage.
I hope that my testimony will appeal to those younger colleagues who are about to graduate or already hold a conservation degree certificate in their hand and who may feel a little anxious or confused about their future. Nevertheless, I would like to point out that the intention of this text has not been to divert anyone from their chosen path, but rather to remind the reader that every one of us has to find their own path, the end of which is often not obvious and clear when we decide to step onto it for the first time. Nowadays, when there are not plenty of jobs around, it is crucial to be prepared to be flexible, but also determined and stubborn. Staying in touch with the profession and the community of conservation professionals is unquestionably crucial!
Whereas not all conservation graduates will end up having ‘conservator’ in their official job title straight after university, and potentially some might never find it on their badge or business card, that does not mean that their conservation education and experience can not be utilised elsewhere in the world of cultural heritage, albeit in a different guise. Trying something slightly different to the original plan does not have to be daunting. As I have learnt myself, the skills and the knowledge conservation students acquire in the course of their degree make them very well prepared for various professional challenges across the field of cultural heritage.

Adam M Klupś Adam currently works as the Assistant Church Buildings Officer for the Diocese of Gloucester, supporting the work of the Diocesan Advisory Committee, which advises on matters relating to church buildings and churchyards, promotes the long-term sustainable future of the historic church buildings across the diocese and assists individual congregations in caring for them and adapting them for today’s needs. Adam holds a BA in History of Art with Material Studies from University College London and an MA in Principles of Conservation, from the Institute of Archaeology (UCL), from where he graduated in 2013. Adam is also a trustee of the Jozef Pilsudski Institute of Research based in London. In 2011, in collaboration with IIC, he instigated the first Student and Emerging Conservator Conference. Adam remains a member of the S&ECC organising committee, currently contributing to the planning of the third of this series of conferences, which is to be held in Warsaw in October 2015.