Career pathways: Conservation Officer

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Q. Who are you and what do you do?
I’m Ambrose Scott-Moncrieff, and my title is Conservation Officer, but I’m part-time, I do a job share with Rebecca Moisin, so there’s two of us doing one post, and our duties, our responsibilities are the well-being of the paintings, so we look after them both physically, so doing things on the surface of the paintings, so this Turner, but we also do a lot of preventive conservation, like making sure the frames are secure, we patrol the galleries to make sure nothing awful has happened to them, we remind the people who do look after it of the air-conditioning system, which is very important. The idea is to keep the environment in the gallery nice and even, so there’s not sudden changes in heat and humidity. The reason for that is that all the canvases and wood panels are absorbing and giving off moisture everyday, and as they expand and contract, the brittle layers of paint often don’t what they’re meant to do, like staying on. That’s why the air conditioning is so important. Also, when visiting exhibitions come, we check the conditions of other people’s paintings as they arrive, and again, the reason for that is that if there’s any damage somewhere, there can be quarrels. So it’s a bit forensic, really. We have to make sure that everything we’ve received, when it leaves, is in the same condition. So that reduces quarrelling if there’s a condition report made. We also prepare things for loan abroad. So last winter we had about fifteen traveling the world. They have to have a big condition report. They get put into very comfortable foam crates, which are air-freighted, and very often a courier goes with them, and the courier’s job is to accompany the work through the airport and onto the plane to its destination museum. Often people think it’s like going on holiday with a painting, but it can quite demanding.
Q. What qualifications do you need and what was your career path?
There are three formal courses, one at the Courtauld Institute, that’s a BA, there’s one at Northumbria, which is again a BA, and a research course, and I don’t know what qualifications you need to get into it, at the Hamilton-Carr Institute. Unfortunately they’re all postgraduate, so it means that anyone training has to graduate first, so that’s three years gone, and there’s another two years doing this postgraduate course, and it really isn’t enough. But they do learn a lot of theory, The BA they look for could be fine arts, could be physics or it could be chemistry or a version of those. So they’re very high powered people who do it. I was very lucky, because I’m so old, the qualifications weren’t so harsh, and I did apprenticeship-type training with Helmut Rueman at the National Gallery, and he was grandfather of all the restorers, and was embroiled in the clean pictures rage of 1949 when all the paintings came back to the National Gallery when they’d been hidden in caves and things. During the wartime years people had been cleaning or removing the varnish, so out of the wartime gloom came these brilliant Renaissance paintings, and everyone was so shocked they thought they’d been wrecked. So he had to stand his ground there, and say “Well, all I’ve done is remove the varnish, and that wasn’t the original one anyway.” So he was who I trained with, and I did that for three years, and then I worked privately for a bit, and then I got a job here, and then so much for career progression. I consciously avoided becoming management, because I’d be useless at it.
Q. What good about your job?
The most satisfying thing is working on a painting, getting my nose really into it. It’s just wonderful. It’s a very privileged position, because you can get so close, and for such a long time, that you can really get into the brushstrokes and the texture of the paint, and all the colours next to each other, which you wouldn’t do in the normal gallery, because when you go to the gallery, you just look at the paintings on the wall, and if you spend a whole minute in front of a painting it’s a very long time, but it isn’t really enough. It’s just so nice to become intimate with these paintings. So that’s one of the rewards, and the final things is, if there’s a lot of work, hours and hours of work, when it’s finished and goes back into the frame, it’s up on the wall, there’s a sigh of relief – it’s finished! And it looks lovely, and one hopes it will stay nice for about another fifty years. That’s another reward, you’ve done your bit, the public can now enjoy the thing as it should be, and the job’s over. So I never lose enthusiasm.
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