Today I was thinking about the tools that a paper conservator needs to do their job. At the very top of that list should be patience. All of the physical tools required – and there are plenty – are to me the trade-off for the patience as you get to work with fairly random things at times. Conservators need to stay inventive; dentists tools become irreplaceable and making small saw-blades into scraping tools or suddenly possessing a vast collection of small jam jars that fill up your toolbox is not unheard of.
And it isn’t all hands on deck! Not only does everything generally take a long time, the paperwork and other forms of documentation – sketches, diagrams and photography – are absolutely essential to the conservation process. Sometimes you need to research what it is you are working on to gain an understanding to any issues related to it. This is more dominant in the museum sector however, where knowing the history of ‘the stuff’ enables you to treat it with sensitivity to the traditions of another culture or religion, for example. Of course the variety of areas in which to specialise in within the conservation umbrella are also numerous – in this diary I will only be concentrating on issues surrounding paper conservation.
There are considerable differences in conservation issues between archives and museums. To put it very crudely, archive materials are generally handled, and the ability to do so becomes a part of the research process. Museum objects are there to be looked at and admired, most of the time behind a glass and out of reach. These kinds of issues bring to the surface the need to be able to adjust your skills depending on what it is you are working with.
A conservator doesn’t only need to know what to do with the vast selection of tools of the trade, but I think also needs to be part artist, part photographer, part chemist and part researcher – and have the patience of a saint.