#AskAConservator: Your Questions Answered

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Posted 6th November 2019


Your Questions Answered

On Monday 4 November, conservators from around the world took part in #AskAConservator day on Twitter. Here at Watts Gallery – Artists' Village, our De Lazlo Paintings Conservator, Sally Marriott and Collections Manager, Emma Coburn ACR took up the opportunity to share how we care for and conserve our collections, and provided an insight into working in conservation. Keep reading to see a round-up of the day, including contributions from other institutions who joined in our conversation.

North Lincolnshire Museum asked, 'Can you tell us more about what your job entails?'

Emma says, 'As a Collections Manager, I make sure our collections are cared for, preserved and managed to professional museum standards. This involves ensuring our policies and procedures work to identify and manage any potential risks to our collections and buildings whilst, as a visitor attraction, we maintain the vision of Watts Gallery – Artists' Village. I am an Accredited Conservator-Restorer and have worked with many different types of collection from aeroplanes to artwork. But my real interest is in preventive conservation, which means I like to try to prevent damage before it happens!'

Why are insects a problem in museums and galleries?

I am always looking for bugs… not only can they eat our collections, but they can also tell you about the environment our objects are in. We use sticky traps in our display and storage areas to give us a clue as to which insects are visiting or living in Watts Gallery! Some insects are pests (those which eat our collections like the larvae of moths or carpet beetles, for example!) some insects are non-pests (those that just like to visit but do no harm!) We check our traps regularly to ensure the insects are not causing any problems and we make sure we keep our spaces clean, so we are not giving the pests more food to eat!

There must be paintings where multiple glazes have been used by the artist. How precise can you be with removing old varnish and not lifting any of these glazes?

Prior to cleaning paintings we undergo a very extensive chemical testing process to ensure that any material we use to remove varnish or dirt layers does not affect any original material.

I'd really like to know something about how you conserve works in watercolour, bodycolour, gouache, etc. They're often behind glass, or in a sketchbook, but presumably still affected by age, damp, etc.?

Yes, all materials are affected by age and damp and there are specialist paper conservators that work with pieces in watercolour, etc. One approach is to use UV filtered glass

Here at Watts Gallery – Artists' Village, we keep our collections in a stable environment to minimise the risk of damage from fluctuating and/or extremes of temperature and relative humidity. By doing this, we reduce the risk of damp conditions which could cause mould, reducing the risk of dry conditions which could cause embrittlement and the potential damage from rapid changes between these conditions. Whether in store or on display, our spaces are monitored to ensure the environmental conditions are suitable for the objects which are housed there, in order to preserve them for the future.

What skills do you need to be a conservator?

Conservators work with all different types of objects, materials and media, so as a conservator you must be able to appreciate the bigger picture (and understand the types of things that could pose a risk to your collections) but have attention to detail to identify and treat any potential issues! A head for height can help when you need to look at painted ceilings and manual dexterity is important when handling fragile objects!

Other institutions also got involved with this question. Here are some of their responses:

Barbara from the National Archives:
'Our profession is evolving and so the skills you need are therefore changing'.

Sarah from the National Archives:
'Flexibility is key! Digital competencies and hand skills are each as relevant as the other'.

Mela from National Trust Midlands:
'Problem solving is a key skill'.

Julie from National Trust Midlands:
'Communicating what you're doing is really important'.

Emma, Archives Conservation Manager, Historic Environment Scotland:
'Meticulous attention to detail, patience to undertake often painstaking treatments, and a practical and often creative approach to problem solving.'

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