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Reflecting on 30 years in conservation

Eric Archer, National Museum of Australia, 14 May 2010

GUY HANSEN: Our first speaker is Eric Archer who has been a conservator for over 30 years. He has worked at the National Gallery of Victoria, at the State Library of Victoria and is currently senior conservator and head of conservation here at the National Museum of Australia. He was elected the national president of the Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Materials [AICCM] 2003–2005 and is currently a member of the National Collections Preservation Committee.

ERIC ARCHER: Philip, I should say that much of what you said – but not all of what you said – was music to my ears. I feel I should say to you as a conservator that I should apologise for spoiling all your fun. I loved what you said about the dangerous qualities of curators and how they were mavericks. I can reassure you there is a striking similarity between curators and conservators, because they are quite dangerous and sometimes can be mavericks as well.

It was never going to be an easy thing to reflect over 30 years in ten minutes, which works out at about ten seconds a year, and I tried various formats. I tried doing it in decades, but that meant three minutes per decade and it didn’t hang together. So as late as last night, I decided to ditch it all and start at day one and see how far I got.

Let me take you back 30 years. It’s a Monday at the National Gallery of Victoria. It is my first day of life as a conservator, along with my great friend and colleague John Hook who also started on the same day. We are called trainee conservators and our pay is $11,750 a year, which we thought was pretty good. We are in the European paintings gallery where the conservator is taking us for an introductory tour. We are standing in front of [Giambattista] Tiepolo’s The Banquet of Cleopatra which Patrick McCaughey had very recently acquired for the gallery and the conservator is talking very earnestly about this painting. She pauses, rummages around in her lab coat pocket and pulls out a packet of cigarettes and a lighter, and she lights up. She gets very intense and close up to the painting, describing its condition, with clouds of blue smoke billowing over the surface of the painting. John and I looked at each other in wonderment. A security guard comes along and tells her that she is standing too close to the painting. Outraged, she says, ‘I am the conservator and I must be close to my paintings.’ The security guard beats a hasty retreat.

We move on through the gallery and come across the senior curator of European art. We are introduced, and she then immediately tells us that she won’t be letting us work on the collection because we were not trained in Europe and could not possibly understand what we were doing. I slip in at that point that I had studied in Florence and immediately get open door to the collection.

What is the point to this story? It demonstrates that this could not possibly happen today so obviously it means that a lot has happened between then and now, which is a nice segue into the now. I am not taking the achievements of the last 30 years lightly. Back then there were about two dozen conservators in the country, half of whom were the first graduates from the Canberra program; now there are 600.

What were some of those achievements which were hard fought and won and lost over those years? In the 1980s we saw a substantial growth in the number and scale of new and refurbished conservation facilities, including new laboratories at the Australian War Memorial, the National Archives of Australia and the State Conservation Centre in South Australia. Existing laboratories at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the National Library of Australia were expanded, and new museums, such as the National Maritime Museum and the Powerhouse, created extensive conservation facilities.

The AICCM was firmly established as the professional association representing conservators. Conferences were organised and special interest groups formed. Conservators set up private practices, which today make a major contribution to both institutional and private collections in this country. Regional conservation services were established, which included mobile conservation laboratories and outreach programs. Conservation developed as a discipline with a strong research base focusing on material science as well as preventive conservation.

As the profession become established in the major collecting institutions, conservators became incorporated into mainstream collection management structures. Conservators also became managers, and another new and challenging world opened up. What were some of these challenges? In my experience, the most important one is the development of a collections management body of knowledge based on current thinking and evidence-based practice – I am not so sure you will approve of that, Philip – a body of knowledge that is always evolving and questioning itself.

We need to take into account the impact that some of our decisions have on the budget and on the environment. For example, more realistic and meaningful lighting guidelines for display, and we will be hearing more about that later this morning; more realistic and effective environmental settings, including the use of passive and low energy climate control technologies, which we will also be hearing more about later today. Work needs to be done to more fully integrate collection management functions. How do curators, conservators and registration staff work together? There are blurring of roles and some frictions emerging. We need to get serious about sustainable collections management practice and make more use of Museums Australia sustainability guidelines and policy.

The long-term use and preservation of the non-displayed collection in storage also needs to be considered. How is the non-displayed collection perceived by museums? In my experience we are seeing the collection more isolated from the museum. The collection is often now stored in outer suburbs in a warehouse. There is a real disconnect between museums and their collections. Are collections that are not on display becoming redundant, relegated to warehouses in the outer suburbs?

When the National Museum first opened here in 2001, I wondered as I walked through the first exhibition galleries and observed the object retreating further and further into the background, with layers of plasma screens, technology, interpretation and narrative moving into the foreground, what was happening to the object. I was very pleased to see with the development of the new Australian Journeys gallery that it is quite object rich because people love seeing the objects. They love seeing objects in storage. How can we open up our collections to better use our collections that are not on display?

Date published: 21 June 2010