Heritage consultant

I am a free-lance consultant and advise on the care of artworks, artefacts and collections in museums, historic houses and private collections. I help owners of these collections provide good environments for their posessions by making sure it is neither too damp nor too dry, and light levels do not cause fading or other damage. I help them create suitable stores for artefacts that are not on display, and work with architects and engineers to help them design and build buildings that provide a suitable and stable indoor climate for collections, preferably in a sustainable way. I am also distributor for equipment that museums use to measure temperature, humidity and light levels, and do all the sales, site testing and calibration in Scotland.

 

How did you get interested in what you do? What advice was available to you when you chose this career direction? 

 As a child I was really interested in polishing my parents' things and making them look beautiful, but it was only much later that I learned about the job of conservator. I liked making things with textiles (knitting, embroidering, sewing, etc). I chose this career after first having done something else, so did not get any advise for this direction from school.

 

What was your journey to reach the role you are in today?

Through career-interest tests in P6 I discovered I had a strong interest in making art/craft things, but I could not imagine I would do this as a job and for a long time mainly saw it as a hobby. After secondary education (with languages, history and geography) I went on to do secretary-training and worked at a bank for a year. During this year I did an evening course and got a qualifiation to teach sewing and other textile techniques in primary school (the primary schools in my country did not have specialist art teachers but did have specialist sewing/knitting/textile teachers to teach the girls 'useful skills'). I never worked as a primary teacher, but went on to do teacher training college in textiles and art.

This gave me a qualification to teach in secondary school. I still didn't get a teacher's job (there weren't very many at the time, and I got more pleasure out of making things myself rather than teaching others) and instead ended up working in a fabric shop for a year and running some evening classes. A colleague in the shop had just graduated in Textile Conservation, and when I saw this advertised I decided to enter the course. In the final year I had to do two placements, one of which I did in Edinburgh at the National Museums of Scotland. I ended up getting offered a temporary job at the museum, whilst still having to do my exams back in Holland, and came to Edinburgh after my exams for the 9-month contract.

After this I discovered that a new job was being created in Edinburgh in Preventive Conservation, this was about preventing damage from happening to museum artefacts instead of repairing things after they got damaged. I was offered this job, did it for 4 years (advising museums on how to look after their collections), then moved to the National Trust for Scotland and set up a similar job there working with the historic houses, eventually becoming Senior Conservator. After the birth of my son I wanted to work more flexibly and set up my own business in Collection Care, working 4 days a week.. In 2008 I decided to go to University to study Sustainable Heritage and graduated with an MSc the next year (my first university degree at the age of 48!). I still work four days a week.

 

Talk me through a day in your life... what sorts of things would it involve?

My days can vary a lot, when I'm at my desk I ususally spend the first hour(s) on emails. The emails may contain orders for new equipment, which I then place with the manufacturer, who sends it directly to the client. There may be invoices that need to be paid (I do that via the internet) or there may be questions about equipment that isn't working properly, or a request for me to come and look at a museum or store.

Then I might be writing a report about the environment in a historic house, or a short summary letter after a visit to a client to talk about the environment in their museum. I may have some pieces of equipment that need to be repaired (usually means soldering in a new battery or sending it back tot the manufacturer), and there may be some administration that I need to do: keep track of, and record all the orders, invoices and payments, prepare information for the Accountants or renew my professional insurance, write invoices to clients and make sure I get paid.

At the moment I'm also writing a talk which I will be giving at a conference in Glasgow in April. This is about Abbotsford, the home of Sir Walter Scott in Melrose, which is being completely refurbished and where I oversee all the work related to the collections.

When I'm not at my desk I'm with a client for maintenance and calibration of their equipment, or for a meeting about a project (like Abbotsford where I meet monthly), or to advise them on their temperature and humidity. I cover all of Scotland and the north of England, and sometimes am away for several days at a time.

 

Was it your planned career when you were 18?

No, I wanted to be an artist, but didn't think my parents would approve. I never asked them though!

 

What did your mum and dad want you to do?

They were quite open about what I wanted to do, but at the same time I thought they wanted me to have a 'proper' job. They were pleased when I did secretary training (my mum was a secretary), and were fine with my choice of teacher training college. My only regret is that I didn't ask them what they would have thought of me going to art college.

 

What advice would you give to someone interested in your career?

I would advise anyone interested in any career to follow their heart and their interests and not worry too much about 'earning a lot' or  'having a career'. Nearly every job will give you opportunities to acquire skills that can also be applied elsewhere. As part of my career I learned to use computers, word processing, spreadsheet and database programmes as well as the internet, I learned to solder, to do minor repairs, to be able to maintain finance admininstration and accounts for my small business. Most of all I learned to identify and solve problems and to use lateral thinking for it. All of these skills would be of use in other types of jobs.

The fullfillment of the jobs I have done has been in the pleasure that I have got out of them for doing my job and doing it well, helping people wihere they didn't have the skills or knowledge themselves, the many different museums I have seen, and the fact that I was (and am) working for and with charities (many museums have charitable status), and not for organisations where my or the organisation's main goal is to make money.

What other directions could you go in /work in within your field other than the job you have chosen?

I could work in a museum or historic house organisation rather than be self-employed;

I could focus on the development of sustainable approaches to the care of collections, looking at energy use for the provision of good environmental conditions and how energy could be saved;

I could combine with my teaching background and teach conservation students about preventive conservation and sustainability; 

I could combine with my secretary background and become administrator at a museum or conservation course.