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These women rock all things conservation at London’s V&A museum
Have you ever wondered about what happens behind the scenes at museums?
Art Girls Jungle 07 Apr 2020

Have you ever wondered about what happens behind the scenes at museums? Besides curators, there are a whole host of people working to make sure these institutions run smoothly. One of the most important behind the scenes teams are conservation departments. The conservators who work there are the people who preserve and conserve a museum’s collections. They are the people clued up on knowledge about science and materials, and who also have the practical skills to safeguard objects for museum display. So, how exactly do you get the job of handling and looking after some of the world’s most historically valuable objects? We spoke to three women working in the conservation team of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum – an institution founded in 1852 with a collection of over 2 million objects – to ask them about how they became involved in the conservation world. So, without further ado, let us introduce you to Stephanie Jamieson, Amanda Imai and Susana Fajardo. 

Stephanie Jamieson, Paper Conservator

stephanie jamieson

Stephanie Jamieson vertically assembling broken glass at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2018

 

What kind of conservation do you do?
I am a paper conservator specialising in photograph conservation. 

What did you study?
I did an MA in conservation at Camberwell College of Arts and took the Art on Paper pathway- you can choose to specialise in paper or books on the course (which sadly no longer exists!)

What do you do all day?
As my focus is photography, on most days I will be working with photographic materials.  It is important to understand the process by which the photograph was made before any conservation decisions can be made. Careful analysis of the materials, format and characteristics can help determine what the photographic process is. Once I have a good understanding of the object, I can start assessing the condition and/or environmental requirements of the item and if needed planning conservation treatment.  

How would you describe your job to your friends?
My friends and family have a good understanding of what I do now, but when meeting someone new I usually say art conservator or restorer as I think it is common for most people to think of environmental conservation when hearing the word conservation. I usually go on to say that this involves repairing photographs, although this really simplifies the work conservators do!

Amanda Imai, Sculpture Conservator

AmandaImai

What kind of conservation do you do?
I’m a sculpture conservator on placement at the V&A, but during summer I also do archaeological work on ancient ceramics and architecture. 

What did you study?
I’m currently completing my Master’s of Science in conservation at University College London. My first Master’s was in history of art and archaeology from Columbia University. 

What do you do all day?
There is no such thing as a typical day! One day I might be consolidating a broken sculpture, another day I might be painting a damaged work or running a lab test to determine the material composition of an object (this can sometimes tell us how old it is and where it came from). 

How did you get the job?
The final year of my degree is spent working in an institution—one student per museum, while we write our dissertations. I applied to the V&A, and here I am. 

How would you describe your job to your friends?
I’m basically a doctor for heritage objects. We analyse and treat works using our knowledge of chemistry and materials science.

Susana Fajardo, Senior Textile Conservator

Susana OPERA_2016

What kind of conservation do you do?
I am a textiles conservator, which means I work with all kinds of textile material: historical, modern and contemporary. Textile materials are 3D and 2D.  2D textiles such as carpets, embroideries, tapestries, furnishings; and 3D such as fashion costumes and fashion accessories such as hats, gloves, parasols, bags; theatre costumes and accessories; dolls, marionettes, etc.  Textiles are organic matter, fibre based organic matter: either cellulose fibres (cotton, linen, flax) or protein fibres (silk and wool) but the areas of textile conservation also embrace other organic materials such as feathers, fur, and leather. And also plastics when in relation to the areas of fashion and theatre, e.g cellulose nitrate sequins, whole dresses, cellophane, rubber, and latex parts. I inevitably often work with textile objects which are ‘composite’ objects, meaning textile objects which include a range of different materials other than fibre based materials such as wood parts (inner structures), metal parts (fastenings, metal sequins), pigments (painted or stencilled textiles), paper (linings, threads), or glass elements (ornaments such as beads) . For instance a marionette will have a carved & painted body with metal hinges and leather straps and be dressed in original costume. At the V&A I am fortunate to be part of a large conservation department covering all disciplines. My fellow conservation colleagues may undertake the conservation of non-textiles areas, in some instances my colleagues may instruct me so I could carry these out under their expert guidance.

 

What did you study?
My background is in the arts. I have a BA Hons degree in ‘constructed textiles’ specializing in tapestry weaving as an art form from Camberwell School of Art & Crafts. After Camberwell I spent a year in Paris, at the Manufacture Royale de Gobelins studying classical tapestry weaving, and actually weaving new work and copying sections of historic tapestries to master the classical technique of interpretation from the cartoon to the woven piece. After Paris I returned to the UK, as well as carrying on my own private artistic work, I followed a 3-year apprenticeship programme in tapestry conservation with ex-V&A textile conservator Ksynia Marko at her newly established Textile Conservation Studio in the East End of London. I then joined the Historic Royal Palaces Agency based at Hampton Court Palace textile conservation studio. I worked on a number of tapestries from the Royal Palaces in preparation for the opening of the newly restored state apartments in 1996, this is after the fire which occurred in 1986.

What do you do all day?
I carry out a combination of practical conservation on objects from the collection, and ‘administrative’ work which is computer based. I also take part in project based meetings. I deliver in-house training in areas of preventive conservation. I am an active participant of the V&A learning academy (VALA) on various income generating initiatives.

By practical conservation on objects I mean the assessments stage to establish the object’s condition and the specifics of the treatment to be followed and treatment time. The treatment could include: surface cleaning with the aid of a controlled power vacuum and soft brushes, or mechanical cleaning with the aid of inert synthetic sponges which help me remove further any surface soil, or following testing for colour fastness I could carry out more in depth cleaning with water and/or with solvents. Following the cleaning stage I might stabilize my textile object with either a stitching support or an adhesive support. And I look very carefully at its long term storage needs, and display requirements either short or long term.

How did you get your job?
A combination of two things: my love of history and my experience working in Paris at Manufacture Royale de Gobelins. The Manufacture Royale de Gobelins has its own museum, as well as continuing to be a teaching institution. The Manufacture carries out to this day conservation and restoration of their vast collection of large historical textiles as well as commissioning new ones. It is a magnificent and very inspiring place.

How would you describe your job to your friends?
My work is object based, which is something I love. I handle amazing objects all the time. A great variety of them. My job is principally and primordially to care for the object’s preservation, for the future, for future generations. My work is and needs to be long lasting be it decisions on treatment, or decisions concerning its storage. Through my work I discover aspects of objects which are not obvious at first, this is infinitely thrilling. My job never ceases to surprise me, to enchant me, to amaze me. I consider myself lucky to walk into the V&A every day and to work with the museum’s extraordinary collections. 


Text Lizzy Vartanian

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