#AskaConservator: 2020

From ironing paper and analysing paint samples to pest checks and sewing mounts, our conservators do some special work in the Gallery caring for all of the works of art that enter our care. They specialise in objects, painting, textiles, paper, digital and preventative conservation — to name just a few! They’ve answered some of the questions you posed on 2020 Ask a Conservator Day here.

We’d love to know how our fellow conservators first heard about the profession or became interested in it? What sparked your inner conservator for the first time!?

JOCELYN — Paintings Conservator: I was a big Agatha Christie fan in my early teens. The lead female character in ‘The Pale Horse’ is a smart, courageous, fun paintings conservator — she seemed like an excellent role model at the time.

DEBBIE: My dad was a watchmaker so I guess I was brought up with the notion of repairing and restoring something, but I really didn’t know about art conservation until I studied fine arts and archaeology at university, then one thing lead to another …

Objects Conservation condition checking Vivienne Binns’ ‘Tower of Babel’, 1989, Gift of the artist 2020

A lot of great, early 19th century, artists created work on all sorts of “material” (i.e. Klee), their work is no less impressive and still here. As an artist why should I care about “acid-free” and “archival” materials? Isn’t that YOUR problem?

Conservators spend a lot of time putting preventive measures in place to reduce deterioration of materials. They also restore damages allowing a work of art to look as close as possible to the artist’s original intent. But if the artist choses materials which are inherently unstable, and they know the materials will not last, this is something that is assessed and addressed at the time of acquisition. Although Klee used a lot of non-traditional materials for his time, they have more stability than so many materials available today.

Do you ever get emotional due to the weight of history that you are working with?

JOCELYN — Paintings Conservator: It can be intense when you come to work on something you’ve known since childhood via prints and posters, or studied intently in an art textbook. Not only are there many iconic works in the National Gallery’s collection but there are also the works that come to us on loan for our special exhibitions. About two years ago I checked the condition of Sir John Everett Millais’ Ophelia, 1851–52, as it arrived on loan from Tate — a work that I have known and loved since my early teens. It was hard to believe that the actual physical work was there in front of me, and that for that small period of time it was under our care.

The Paintings Conservation team with Tjungkara Ken, Sandra Ken, Yaritji Young, Freda Brady, Maringka Tunkin, Pitjantjatjara people, ‘Seven Sisters’, 2018, purchased 2020

It is special, although you do get used to working with amazing works of art every day. I do remember on one occasion we had Mark Rothko, Claude Monet and Jackson Pollock’s Blue poles, 1952, in the conservation lab all at the same time. I had walked past them numerous times a day for several days, then as I came down the stairs one day I stopped and took in what was in my view … I did realise this was a special place to work!

Paintings Conservation working on Claude Monet ‘Meules, milieu du jour [Haystacks, midday]’, 1890, purchased 1979

Do you conserve digital pieces? If so, how is this done?

FIONA — Paper Conservator: Digital works of art are acquired in numerous file formats, on a variety of carriers such as discs, hard drives and SD cards and may require specific platforms or playback equipment. We work with external audio visual specialists for migration and duplication of digital media to ensure the integrity of the work is retained. Digital works of art require secure server storage and are migrated or duplicated according to best practice. As technology changes at a rapid pace, it is critical to keep up, but undertake necessary migration before obsolescence of software or hardware occurs.

What is your favourite type of artwork to work on? (sculpture, drawing, oil painting etc.)

SARAH — Objects Conservator: We specialise in different areas — at the National Gallery we have conservators who work just in paper, paintings, textiles and objects. I work in Object Conservation, which is quite broad as it includes everything from the sculptures out in the garden and large installation works, through to decorative arts such as jewellery, ceramics and baskets. I enjoy the diversity of working with objects but perhaps the most challenging — and the area that I like the most — is the more unusual installation works such as the mechanical machines or the assembled parts hanging from the ceiling, which involve lots of problem solving and often getting my hands dirty.

Best way to get into the industry in Australia?

SARAH — Objects Conservator: To be a conservator you need a formal conservation qualification. A lot of recent conservators at the National Gallery completed their Masters degree from the University of Melbourne or undertook study overseas. Conservators have undergraduate degrees from all different fields. I went to art school but when I studied conservation, I studied with people who had done law, materials engineering, archaeology, anthropology, and nursing. You study materials science and chemistry to understand how materials age and become damaged, as well as the practical side of repairing cultural materials and the cultural side so you know how to treat them appropriately. We also have conservation technicians working with us who don’t have conservation degrees but who have fantastic skills in practical fields we might need, such as metal fabrication and making mannequins, and we have framers who work with us too. They generally came to work with us through applying when the job came up after they had developed these skills.

The Objects Conservation team in the Gallery’s conservation lab

I’m about to get my chemistry degree, how can I work in this field?

A chemistry degree is a great foundation for conservation, it is also important to have some knowledge and interest in art or cultural history. If you have your degree, it would be important to then do postgraduate study in conservation. Many cultural institutions take interns, contract and volunteer positions to assist with developing practical skills. Our Head of Conservation would be happy to provide more information.

Do you need to wear gloves? Sometimes I notice you are not. Why is that?

truth, sometimes we do and sometimes we don’t. It depends on what we are doing. It’s impossible to do a lot of things with gloves on — pop on a pair of rubber gloves next time you have to do some hand sewing — but if you are cleaning silver, where every finger print can leave a mark, gloves are a must. When installing, gloves are often worn and of course they are worn when chemicals are being used to protect the conservator. It is strange that gloves have become a symbol of the profession when we often work with bare hands. It should be noted that if a conservator is working with bare hands they are washed constantly, and wearing hand lotion is not an option.

What is the most economical way to clean a painting of dust and smoke myself?

DAVID — Paintings Conservator: Unfortunately, there is not one single method when it comes to cleaning off materials which have deposited on a painting. In considering a strategy, we take into account the type of paint, the age and condition of the paint layer, the type of support and the presence of any surface coating, and the nature of the deposit itself. It is possible to cause lasting damage if the wrong cleaning method is used. While many works have sentimental value for the owner, rather than large financial worth, I would always recommend that you consult an accredited conservator for advice just to make sure the problems are dealt with in the safest way for the well-being of the work.

The Textiles Conservation team with DI$COUNT UNIVER$E ‘I am not sorry, I am not for sale, I am not for reproduction’ and ‘The euphoria’, 2018, Gift of the artists 2020

What do you appreciate most in this job?

MICHELLE — Textiles Conservator: I appreciate so many things about being a textile conservator. Being able to examine textiles up close to determine how they are made and the steps we can take to help them have their best life and tell their stories is always a privilege. Often the textiles we work with are made entirely by hand from the fibre processing, to the weaving, and decorating. Some of them are so fine and intricate. It always amazes me.

Textiles Conservation getting Punjab region, India or Pakistan ‘Ceremonial cover or woman’s head-covering [phulkari]’ mid 20th century, Gift of Claudia Hyles, 2006, ready for display

What is most challenging about this job?

JOCELYN — Paintings Conservator: Maintaining concentration and interest when a treatment goes on for months at a time can be difficult, but it is also hard to call it ‘finished’ at the end and stop re-doing things. At the end of a treatment that has involved re-touching losses or damages to a painting, I always see areas I’ve done that I’d like to do better.

How do you wash watercolour art and prevent bleeding or colour reduction?

FIONA — Paper Conservator: As a general rule the older a work is, the more oxidised and potentially more stable the pigments might be. A modern work will be more susceptible to wet treatments because it is less oxidised, but also because, from the mid-19th century, the artist’s palette became much more complex, with the addition of chemically synthesized pigments. These pigments often contain water sensitive components such as dyestuffs, added to enhance the intensity of the colours. Prior to any wet treatments, works are thoroughly tested to establish the parameters within which safe treatment can occur. Pigments, inks and other media can be specifically identified with a range of examination techniques — such as with ultra-violet or infrared light sources, surface microscopy, XRF and polarised light microscopic analysis. If the media is found to be stable, works can be washed in a variety of ways, for example by floating on the surface of a water bath, capillary washing on blotter or using a vacuum suction table to draw water through. Water treatments can also be applied by isolating areas of media that are sensitive. When paper is first made it is often in an alkaline condition. Depending on what the paper is made from, and the conditions in which it is kept, it may become acidic. The visual indications of this are brown discolouration, spot stains known as ‘foxing’ and brittleness. Washing is used to reverse this degradation and chemically stabilise the paper.

Paper Conservation with Thea Proctor’s ‘The swing.’, 1925, purchased 1973, © Art Gallery of New South Wales

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National Gallery of Australia

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Home to Australia's national collection of visual arts.

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