Eleven years ago, Fran was a good mate’s new girlfriend. Today, I’m lucky enough to call her one of my besties. We’ve shared a lot over the past decade – a workplace, a postcode, countless festivals and interstate jaunts, a trek to Annapurna Base Camp, a tendency to spend too much money on houseplants, a love of dirty dumplings, indulgent Saturday’s full of massages, pedicures and spas and a penchant for making up games (think Pictionary + Charades = Charictionary). Fran is one of the most loyal, intelligent, fun-loving and unique women I have the privilege of walking through life with. It was an absolute pleasure spending a sunny afternoon in her courtyard recently, indulging in Prosecco and a cheese platter, while learning more about her fascinating work. I’m excited to shine a light on this, often invisible profession.
“I’ve always been fascinated by history, myths and legends – my grade three teacher used toilet rolls to demonstrate how the Egyptians built the pyramids and I remember being completely enthralled. This fascination followed me right through high school, where I studied ancient civilisations and read a lot of historical fiction.
Now, I work in conservation, preserving old things that are important to many different people for a whole range of different reasons. These objects are reminders and conveyors of stories.
In my personal life, I’ve become good at surrounding myself with mementos that connect me to my own family and story. I’ve never been particularly connected to the houses I’ve lived in because my parents split when I was quite young and I moved around a lot as a kid. Instead, it’s always been the things inside – the rugs, the lamps, the pictures on the walls – that have made a place a home. It sounds nostalgic, but it’s not about living in the past. These things are a physical expression of who I am because they connect my past to my present.
I always enjoy the process of learning what objects mean for somebody else. My work oscillates between working on very personal objects with personal significance, to items of great social significance like war memorials. I did a project last year, repairing a jade carving a couple had bought on a trip to China in the 70s. It was a really nice project to work on because I knew what it meant to them.
While restoration is about returning something to a state of newness, conservation is about preserving something in its current state. It’s a hands-on profession, with a theoretical backing and perfectly combines my love of art, history and science. You need to have an understanding of the deterioration mechanisms in order to put measures in place to slow them down.
It’s a huge privilege to be able to preserve historical objects so future generations can learn from them. Every treatment is terrifying because every treatment is different.
During my Masters I worked on mould treatments on aboriginal collection items, a collapsed headdress from Papua New Guinea and a stone teapot. Then, after uni, I spent a summer in New York doing maintenance on the 52 monuments and sculptures around Central Park.
I then spent three years working on a relocation project for Museums Victoria, which saw me playing a giant game of Tetris with the museum’s 18 million objects (only about 4% are actually on display). I spent six months in the basement of the Royal Exhibition Building working with the mineralogy and geology collections, moving 1200 cabinets full of rocks. I felt so lucky to be able to spend my days hanging out with so many items of social and natural historical value that the public may never get to see – old metcard machines, the flying tram from the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony, aboriginal artifacts from all over Australia and a huge collection of natural history items too.
I also spent some time with Museums Australia Victoria, a peak body, who act as a representative voice advocating for museums and galleries at a government level. I was working on a community digitisation project that was funded after a bushfire in the mid-2000s wiped out the entire Marysville Historical Society collection. It was such a tragedy, but the work was heartwarming – spending time with volunteer organisations who had very little funding and offering them a free online collections database.
I’m now working for a conservation company who work with private clients as well as museums and government. I’ve discovered how unobtainable conservation is for many people so it’s been an eye-opening experience. When a client invests time and money into preserving an object, we know it’s more significant to them than its material parts – otherwise they would just replace it with a new one.
In this role, I spent a week in New Zealand cleaning the inside of a plane from the Second World War. I worked on a collection of natural fibres and organic artifacts in Papua New Guinea after a small disaster. I did a stabilisation treatment for a corroding metal sword from the First World War. I love that I’m constantly working with different materials, in different places and doing different treatments.
It is a real privilege to do the work that I do, but it isn’t without its challenges. When I graduated I felt quite adrift and directionless because it’s such a competitive field. There were about 14 graduates, but there certainly weren’t 14 jobs. My peers and I are often interviewing alongside each other. The role is also an invisible one so it’s hard to find your feet and tap into opportunities.
To help provide more opportunities for students and established professionals to interact, I set up an emerging conservators group a couple of years ago and we have almost 200 members now. Last year, we were officially established as a special interest group recognised by the Australian Institute for Conservation of Cultural Materials which is really exciting.
There’s a huge community of conservators out there and so much scope for us to learn from one another. But given the industry is so competitive, we often don’t communicate about our innovations. Through the emerging conservators group, I really hope to encourage greater openness and opportunities so we can learn from one another and continue to preserve and share stories for future generations.
Through all my roles, I’ve had really special experiences. When you take an interest in someone else’s passion you can learn a lot about people.”