Recipes

As I was first finding out about conservation one of the things that struck me was all the cooking up of concoctions that has to be done. And what concoctions- rabbit skin glue, animal glue, fish glue, beaver glue (this one was actually a mishearing of BEVA). And if it’s not based on an ancient traditional recipe involving part of an animal then it’s futuristic and scientific- Paraloid B72, MS2A, Laropal A81, BEVA 371, Plextol, Regalrez.

Most if not all conservators have a collection of rather unappetising recipes that they will be called upon to cook on a more or less frequent basis depending on what they’re working on.¬†Some of these collections are organised in a special recipe books, very much the preserve of an individual.¬† Others are scraps of stained and aged paper in different peoples’ handwriting that act as a tangible history of conservation as well as history of the studio. Others still are taped inside the solvent cupboard so that anyone making the stock solution for whatever the favoured varnish is can just add more to the massive jar.

In a fairly young profession like conservation materials come in and out of favour, depending on new research or practical experience. Some of the materials once considered standard are either now out of commission for ethical reasons, perhaps concerns over reversibility or ‘re-treatability’. Wax-resin is a good example of this. It was used widely in the mid- to late twentieth century as a good solution to the problem of moisture response and susceptibility to mould of the earlier lining-material-of-choice glue-paste (glue-paste is still used at the National Gallery now). The problem is that once the wax has impregnated the canvas it’s not coming out again and the whole painting is now susceptible to deformations associated with heat among other things. Other times there are supply-chain issues. Such as a reported scarcity of isinglass (glue made from the dried swim-bladders of Russian sturgeon fish) brought on by the Cold War*; or MS2A, (a resin used for varnishes that is the by-product of some industrial process that I don’t know about) which first became cripplingly expensive when it had to be made as a product in itself due to changes in whatever process it was the by-product of by one man who has now retired, taking it from expensive to unavailable without a great deal of warning.

Increasingly the materials and supplies needed are becoming harder to find. In a niche profession there aren’t multiple suppliers of the things we need, which means that we are reliant on small companies and individuals. Changes in the ethics of treating pictures, with a move towards ‘minimal intervention’, means that the suppliers of previously highly demanded materials are no longer seeing that demand and are cutting conservation lines as they aren’t cost effective to produce or stock. But it’s not all doom and gloom. For all of the problems with supply that I have had in the past year I have been helped by the wider community of conservators.

Another increasingly prevalent issue with materials is sustainability. Not only are some of the materials conservators use bad for the user but they are bad for the environment. In a world becoming more conscious of bio-diversity as well as Health and Safety people are looking for alternatives to some of the solvents and materials we are using (I’m looking at you again, isinglass).

It can be daunting trying to get to grips with something unfamiliar, especially when you work on your own like I do, but it’s so important to keep up-to-date, reach out to others and to try some new recipes.

Here is a link to see how they make up very beautiful and orderly isinglass flakes at the conservation department at John Rylands Library. Next time I need to make a batch I’m going to do it their way.

*I can’t find a reference for this at the moment but I don’t think I’ve made it up. I’ll look in some actual books instead of just Googling.

Getting together

As an independent conservator and lone worker I sometimes miss the opportunity to connect with other people at work, whether just a chat over a coffee or getting heads together to solve a problem.

One of the ways I get round this is making sure that I get out to conferences where I can hear good speakers talking about things that are relevant or interesting to me and chat to others in a similar position. Luckily I’ve managed to get to two conferences in the last six months, which were two quite different affairs.

The first, in the autumn was the ICON Paintings Group conference in Edinburgh on the subject of “Wet Paint”. It was niche and I’d be surprised if there were many conservators from other disciplines there, never mind anyone from outside the profession. It was a brilliant programme full of inspiring and informative talks by other paintings conservators. Friends who I trained with and others who I’ve worked with were there, which made it an opportunity to catch up as well as to learn (plus the Paintings Group organisers have a wonderfully convivial attitude to the post-conference refreshments). I came home feeling like it was time well spent and enthused to find out more about some of the new treatments I’d heard about.

Last week I went to a conference organised by the Museum Freelance Network in Manchester. This is a group that I’ve only known about for about a year and, while still quite niche, has a broader range of museum professionals, mostly freelance sole-traders like me but not many other conservators. The subject of the day was Agents of Change and the speakers brought different points of view to the emotive and sometimes challenging subject. Talks were again inspirational and informative but instead of being directly relevant to my skills they were directly relevant to my mode of working. One of the lovely images I’ve come away with came from a comment from the floor about what freelancers bring in the form of ideas and best practice from organisation to organisation and describing us as ‘pollinators’, which I found particularly apt in Manchester where the city’s symbol is a bee. Again I’ve come away from the conference with my head full of things to look into and new things to try, but also with the knowledge that there are more of us independent museum people out there than I had realised.

One of the speakers at the Agents of Change conference, Caroline Newns, had a nice analogy for self-employment with expertise as petrol and the business as the vehicle. If I keep going to engaging, inspiring and informative conferences like the last two I should be going the right way to keeping my vehicle on the road.