Ask A Conservator Day 2021

On Thursday 4th November 2021, conservators around the world - including conservation students and tutors from West Dean College of Arts and Conservation - participated in Ask a Conservator day; a day that encourages international collaboration and knowledge exchange using #AskAConservator.

School of Conservation students and tutors participated via the College's Instagram page, answering questions and sharing their experiences in the Conservation sector.

We were joined by Lorna Calcutt, Subject Leader Ceramics Conservation; Dr Eric Nordgren, Metals Conservation Subject Leader and Science Liaison; Malcolm Archer, Subject Leader Clocks Conservation; as well as Graduate Diploma Conservation Studies student Abi who is specialising in Furniture, and MA Conservation Studies student Carola who is specialising in Metals.

In case you missed it, we've collated some highlights from the day below.


Question: How can you tell the age of an object you are conserving?
Answer: There are lots of different aspects we would consider – the context in which we first access the object; where it came through, its condition, form of composition, style etc.

Question: What’s your biggest challenge when conserving an object?
Answer: It all depends on what the object presents as we often find there are many challenges related to specific problems. These can be scale or type – or particular forms of deterioration, or levels of previous restoration. So, the biggest challenge really is fully understanding the object before any conservation can take place.

Question: What triggered your interest in conservation? And what do you love most about your work?
Answer: As a child I collected things and always liked art and history... This seemed to combine into conservation where you could enjoy the blend of history with practical activities. I enjoy working with people with shared interests and the practical aspects of conservation decision-making and processes. The ethical and professional aspects of working with objects and clients is also very interesting - which reinforces why I love what I do. 

Question: What are you working on at the moment?
Answer: The department has a lovely selection of ceramics and related materials objects – some from an archaeological setting, and also decorative art objects from private and public collections. We work on many different materials; a student recently completed a fantastic painted plaster bust of David Livingstone and we have large and small items – from a very large Maiolica two-handled vase to a 19th century reverse-printed glass picture. The beauty of our work is the diversity of cultural heritage objects that we work with – spanning type, time periods and cultures.



Question: Why metals conservation?
Answer: There are so many amazing objects made of metals and there are so many interesting challenges in preserving them. It’s a large field too even though it’s specialised, it’s still quite broad and interesting. 

Question: What's your favourite thing about being a conservator?
The opportunity to put together working with your hands and understanding objects and their history. It’s perfect mixture of craft and science. 

Question: What’s your favourite piece of equipment in the lab and why?
Answer: The Universal Testing Machine a.k.a. ‘The Tensometer’. Why: it can be used to find out really interesting things about the strength and properties of conservation materials in tension and compression. 

Question: Can I apply to study conservation even if I don’t have previous experience?
Answer: Yes you can absolutely. It helps to have previous experience in related areas including practical hand skills and a bit of science. You can find out more about applying for the programmes here at West Dean on the website: 

Question: Do you still get a thrill when you come face to face with a new object?
Answer: Yes, it’s always exciting to learn about a new object and the secrets and challenges it may hold!

Question: I’m considering a career change to conservation. Any tips for late starters?
Answer: Take a bit of time to learn about the field, conservation organisations like ICON (UK), AIC (US) or IIC websites are a great place to start. Think about what kind of conservation practice you would like to do and what sort of training will get you there. 


Question: What’s on your work bench right now?
Answer: This is a bronze age axe head. It’s roughly 4000 years old. It was found in Selsey (which is quite near the college). It’s in great condition for its age but it is definitely showing signs of a typical bronze corrosion which happens post excavation. Essentially that is what it’s here for and what I’m going to treat it for. The surface has been cleaned with a solvent to remove accumulated dirt. To treat the bronze corrosion, I will be using a chemical which stablises the metal and stops corrosion.

Question: Favourite thing about studying conservation at West Dean College?
Answer: For me it’s the opportunity to have time to dedicate to learning about something that had been an amateur interest, which I am now turning into a specialism. The small of amount of students at West Dean mean it’s a great community and there’s a high interaction with tutors. 

Question: Best part about being a conservator?
Answer: Constantly learning! 

Question: What’s the strangest object you’ve worked on?
Answer: This iron age warrior helmet was made around the time the Romans came to Britain. It’s completely unique, and was found in a burial with a number of other objects and skeleton in North Bersted (close to the College). We analysed the composition of the metal with XRF and were able to say that the composition of each part was made from the same source of metal. The techniques used here could then be applied to future projects, such as the bronze age axe mentioned previously. Analysis of the axe will help the conservator decide on the course of treatment. The exciting thing about that is we’re adding the knowledge of the history of the area. 


Question: What’s the most extravagant clock you’ve worked on to date?
Answer: Probably the Clock made by Isaac Habrecht in the British museum, seen in this video here.

Question: What’s your biggest challenge when conserving a clock?
Answer: If the clock is to run, then carrying out repairs that minimise change to the clock but are safe, long lasting and can ideally be removed in the future with minimal intervention. Also convincing the owner/custodian of the need for regular checks. 

Question: What’s on your workbench right now?
Answer: An 18th Century watch with a verge escapement. 

Question: Best part about being a conservator?
Answer: When finishing working on an object with the knowledge that it is in a safe condition. Also preserving and enhancing the skills needed to be an object conservator, these skills can be traditional or new and high tech. 

Virtual open days at West Dean College of Arts and Conservation

Study Conservation

Find out more about conservation study options at West Dean College on a virtual open day: 17th and 24th November. Register to attend on the website.