Experience as a Conservator in Singapore

By Mariko Watanabe

Since I left the West Dean College in September 2013, I've been working as a book and paper conservator at a local company, Q Art Conservation. Initially this company started as a framing company, Q Framing Group, offering framing services using conservation-quality materials.

While they grew as one of the leading framing companies in Singapore, they found that there is a need for conservation. Many of their clients' art pieces needed conservation treatment before they were framed. Under this humid and hot climate in Singapore, it is not easy to keep art pieces in a good condition. At the same time, the idea of conservation is still new in this region, which means that people may not be very aware of how to keep and/or handle their objects. On the other hand, as the country grows, its art market grows, too. It would be a fair guess that there will be more people interested in collecting art, but these people might not necessarily pay attention to the conservation issues of their objects.

Being in such a situation, I think that it was a good timing for the Q Framing Group to establish their own conservation studio and to have in-house conservators. The time when they were looking for a book and paper conservator and when I was looking for a conservation job specifically in Singapore miraculously matched. I still remember how happy and relieved I was when I got an email from them saying that they were welcoming me.

So, I've got a dream job in a country in which I wanted to stay!

However, as I expected, starting up a new conservation studio as a fresh graduate is not easy (sometimes I feel like calling my West Dean friends for advice). I take care of all the paper objects coming to our company all by myself. At the very beginning, I didn't have enough materials and tools. It is hard to get them in Singapore-most of our materials and tools are imported from oversea companies.

I work more on two-dimensional paper objects than books. My training at West Dean was mainly in book conservation. Of course, I learned about papers at the college, and while I was doing an internship in the Netherlands, I worked on a lot of art works on paper. However, to be honest, knowing that I don't have so much experience on flat paper objects sometimes can be very daunting. And, I don't have any conservation colleagues nearby to share this feeling and discuss the conservation problems that I face.

Working in such an environment helps me to learn more proactively and think through everything more in advance. Although I don't have any colleague in the same discipline, my network with conservators abroad has helped me a lot. I have even "met" new people via emails and online communication-my previous supervisors and classmates introduced me to more experienced conservators around them for me to discuss the conservation problems. Also, the environment trains me on how to explain my conservation treatments and issues to others, including my bosses, colleagues and people who are willing to advice me.

For the last month, however, I've had a colleague to keep me company in the conservation lab-an intern!

Our intern was a history major at university in Singapore. When she wrote to me, I could see how passionate she was about learning conservation. From the beginning, I didn't even think of saying "No" to her, but I was not so sure about supervising an intern. Her writing, which reminded me of how I was desperate to learn conservation a couple of years ago, pushed my back. Also, my bosses, who were very open to have an intern, encouraged me. And in the end, it went well; we had her for a month. Of course a month was not enough to understand conservation fully, but enough to get a brief idea of our day-to-day works in the studio. She often said "Wow, there is so much thinking behind a single treatment!". When I was studying, I felt the same thing again and again, and this decision making process is one of the very important things to learn in conservation world. I'm pleased that I managed to show the importance of thinking process to her. I guess it is so typical, but through teaching her, I learned a lot: I improved my ways of communicating with non-professional people; and had chances to review my techniques.

Looking back the past one year after graduating from West Dean (yes, time flies like a bullet train), my experience at the QAC is something irreplaceable. While I miss West Dean friends and the well-equipped workshop, now I cannot think of working without my colleagues here (they're super lovely), and as such I want to make my studio nicely set up, comfortable space to work. And, one day I want to hear someone saying that the QAC is one of the leading conservation studios in this region.