A core concern at Talkin’ Culture is how the Arts landscape is being compromised in terms of the Equality Act through severe funding cuts. For example, unpaid placements and internships exclude who can afford to enter the pipeline by other means despite being qualified. Talkin’ Culture agrees with major reports that factors like this are an Equality Act issue. Over the course of these blogs Paula will invite emerging conservators to do the talkin’ including their suggestions for positive change to address equality and sustainability in this sector. We hope constructive comments and ideas will be shared in support of equality, sustainability and the endangered list of crafts.
Talkin’ Culture Talks to Michelle Kirk, Furniture Conservator, The Royal Household.
Did you have an easy and obvious route into historic conservation?
Not at all - conservation was not something I was aware of when presented with career ideas at high-school. Although I chose art and design, which resulted in a BA degree, I found conservation whilst working as a museum technician and training to be a cabinetmaker. However, this indirect route has had its benefits, through gaining a mixed bag of experience.
How were your interests supported?
Through advice and encouragement - to realise that I had transferable science and craft skills. The great thing about conservation is that it utilises so many different types of skills. Financially, it was through working 3 jobs, a student overdraft and obtaining grants that I was able to undertake courses and postgraduate training - there are charitable sources out there if you put in the extra work.
Have you had to take on unpaid work, unpaid internships or have you been expected to work for nothing to gain experience?
Yes, throughout both my art and conservation experience I have volunteered and undertook placements – none of them paid. I balanced zero-hours work in order to take on specific experience. It pays off though as experience is key, and I believe challenges makes you stronger.
Is pathway information to study and work in historic conservation easy to find?
I found the pathway through word of mouth and internet searches, although I think conservation as a profession is becoming more well-known now. Organisations such as “Art History Link Up” and Creative Dimensions are currently doing great work to make these lesser known careers within the Arts and Heritage sector more known to schools and young adults.
What makes you persevere?
My partner, friends, family - going for what your heart tells you, having no regrets and aiming high.
What are your biggest challenges as a qualified, emerging conservator?
The challenges of the working world – how so much of being a conservator is not just bench work but the process of adapting - whether that’s into an institution, or learning business acumen. Personal feelings such as confidence too - going into an institution and working alongside people with over 30years worth of experience - it’s interesting gaining understanding of the thoughts and feelings of different professionals – their observations of changes in craft and conservation, education, technologies...
Biggest high and low so far?
Biggest high is getting a job and biggest low is witnessing the struggles of friends in the profession.
Do you think conservation skills are valued and understood in the mainstream?
I think it’s getting there slowly, but compared to other professions and trades, has a long way to go yet in terms of making the importance and value of this profession known.
If you summarised your risks what are your rewards?
Financial risks were the main scare – although it’s taken me a while this journey has paid off through getting a permanent job!
What are your recommendations to improve fairer conditions for new entrants into historic conservation?
Spreading awareness of conservation, and providing more information on this field to younger audiences across the UK would give people a head start – and simultaneously making its value and worth known will hopefully encourage/develop more funding resources.
A huge thank you to Michelle for taking part and sharing valuable insights.