Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Conservators as story tellers

I am at the AICCM (Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material) conference in Fremantle, WA being held at the WA Maritime Museum - what a great spot, right at the end of the docks looking out over the Indian Ocean. And it is showing all that is good about conservation, and ultimately why those of us lucky enough to earn our living in it as a profession are so fortunate. It is the sheer diversity of what we get to see and handle that has been reinforced in the first day of papers, from relics of the doomed HMAS Sydney to padlocks that held the Bounty mutineers prisoner on board the Pandora taking them back to trial in Britain.

But the thing that came home to me again was the ability conservators have to provide access to stories, to reveal the histories of objects. The Pandora lock is a case in point. Recovered from the shipwreck of the Pandora (she went down on the Barrier Reef drowning most of the crew and some of the mutineers), conservation has revealed the padlock is in the opened position and bears signs of damage. Is this the sign of the mutineers desperately trying to rid themsleves of their chains as the ship went down by breaking the lock?

Eve Graves from Camberwell School of Art in London, one of the great places to train as a paper conservator, tackled this story-telling issue from a different perspective. All her students have to compile a log book during their training about the stories behind the objects they are treating and how those stories influenced their decisions as to how to conserve them. This includes thinking about the way in which our senses give us access to objects. Thus an object may have remnants of a smell attached to it (perfume in gloves, tobacco smoke in books), which are a vital link to the original owner and why it is being conserved.

That's why conservation can be so rewarding.

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