MA Conservation Studies, Specialising in Books and Library Materials 2003 - 2004

Lizzie Meek

Artefacts Conservator

Do you remember coming to an Open Day at West Dean and if so, how did it help you decide to study at West Dean?

When I entered West Dean in 2003, it was one of only two institutions in the UK which offered applied book conservation as a specialism. Focussed, live-in study along with small class sizes and an emphasis on valuing traditional craft skills made it very appealing, and the house and beauty of the surroundings only added to that.

What do you consider your biggest achievement to date?

Managing the conservation programme to assess and treat 20,000+ artefacts from the Antarctic expedition bases of Scott, Shackleton, Borchgrevink and Hillary – seeing the buildings and artefact collections come back from the brink and retain their spirit of place.

Talk us through your career path since graduating

Although I had planned to return to work in Book Conservation at the British Library, an unexpected opportunity in New Zealand came up and I spent four years as Senior Book Conservator there, working on Special Collections, as well as published New Zealand and Pacific collections. During this time I met some colleagues who had worked in Antarctica on the Antarctic Heritage Trust project to conserve the heroic-era huts, and they let me know a position was coming up to conserve the books, periodicals and papers from Scott’s hut at Cape Evans. I spent a winter at New Zealand’s Scott Base with a small team of conservators, and the rest of the base crew. Camping out at -40 degrees C, seeing aurora, driving hagglunds and skidoos and feeling the base shake when winter storms hit more than 100mph, adds up to a life changing experience. Getting to know the incredible historic sites, their stories, and the challenges of conserving objects in sub-zero temperatures – that got me hooked, and when the Trust offered me a position as Programme Manager-Artefacts, I accepted, and since then have travelled to Antarctica for the last 13 seasons, working with small teams for 1-3 months at a time, living out in the field in tents and working in pretty challenging conditions with limited facilities. You get used to conserving with cold fingers! As part of a partnership agreement we have with the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust, I’ve also spent two seasons working at British historic sites on the Antarctic Peninsula – Stonington Island, and Port Lockroy, accessible only by week long sea voyages across the Drake passage and into the iceberg belt.

What projects are you currently working on?

This year we are preparing for an annual visit to the Ross Island Huts, to carry out preventive and reactive maintenance, monitoring, and conservation treatments. We are also planning to go to Cape Adare, which is 800km from Scott Base, and is the site of Carsten Borchgrevink’s 1899 expedition base – the first team to spend a full year living on the continent. We have a major intervention project planned for these at-risk structures, however it is very difficult to reach logistically, and whilst we have successfully installed our field camp, for the last few seasons it has not been possible to get the logistics lined up to ensure a conservation team can be safely dropped off and collected. Hopefully this year!

Do you have any tips for recent graduates?

Follow what you are passionate about, make opportunities for yourself by asking questions, offering your time as a volunteer, and above all, don’t give up on the first knock-back – often the people who approach us more than once are the ones who eventually get to Antarctica, having made it obvious they are genuinely keen, and can commit to it.

How do you think studying at West Dean College prepared you for what you do now?

It’s all about growing independent decision-making skills. Useful whether in business alone, or working in an organisation or company - understanding how to find your own answers and to trust them.

What's your favourite memory from your time at the College?

Having the different courses close together on campus is pretty special, and inspirational. I spent a few very happy sessions in the musical instruments workshop, making some pegged oak boards for a Carolingian style binding. I remember the generosity of the tutor and his students in letting me use their tools and offering tips, and I have that binding on my shelf here today.

Find out more about Conservation study options at West Dean College here.

Lizzie Meek, Conservation of Books Alumna of West Dean College