New material for student conservator

Student conservator Meghan Parker took up one of our free student places at the recent conference on ‘Materials’ in London. Here she reflects on what she took away from the event.

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the NHIG’s one day conference “Living in a Material World” on materials and their use in the conservation of historic ironwork. As a second-year master’s student in the University of Amsterdam’s Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Heritage program specializing in metal objects, my training has mostly focused on smaller objects in museum environments. This means that I am slightly less familiar with treatments where functionality is as important as preservation or aesthetic concerns. The conference thus provided some welcome exposure to the complexities of material selection in treating historic ironwork and built heritage.

There were two main take-aways for me. One was the age-old dilemma of the conservator – deciding how much ought to be done and with what materials. Two presentations using specific material case studies were particularly valuable in that respect to me. The first was given by David James on when traditional approaches are appropriate or not, using lead filling as a model. I found myself pondering what criteria I would use to decide whether to use a traditional technique or material. It also raised the issue of knowing when to go to an expert in a traditional technique for help with a project. The other presentation was given by Dave Gant on choosing materials appropriate to a project, using his work on historic railway bridges as an example. Here, the matter of weighing safety and reliability with originality was made manifest. While it is always preferable to aim for original materials, if these materials cannot guarantee a functional bridge or are so costly that the only alternative is replacing the bridge, finding acceptable substitutes becomes paramount. His discussion of his team’s decision-making process was quite informative.

But how do you go about deciding what an acceptable substitute is and when to make it? This important question formed the heart of Geoff Wallis’ presentation and the discussion panel following it and led to my second take-away. How important is it to have a clearly defined code of ethics for conservation and restoration work when they may ultimately be unattainable? These codes often seem to be taken for granted, existing quietly in the background, rarely engaged with. If such guidelines are nearly impossible to achieve, why have them at all? Responses ranged from having an ideal state to aim for, giving people a common ground for communication, and providing guidance in decision making, all of which I found valuable to keep in mind. While not settling on one answer, the conference created a welcome space to consider and grapple with these questions.

Finally, it was fantastic getting to meet so many conservation blacksmiths and other diverse heritage professionals and hear about the problems they have faced and the solutions they have devised to deal with those problems. I am being trained to approach objects in specific ways, with a specific set of tools – it is always valuable to learn about alternatives and other perspectives.

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