Museum Makers: Stephanie de Roemer, Glasgow Museums
Conservator for sculpture and contemporary art at Glasgow Museums, Stephanie de Roemer explains the integral work that conservators do in looking after museums’ objects and works of art.
In many ways my role is like that of a medical professional. I am caring for the physical and technical wellbeing of objects and works of art in Glasgow Museums to extend their ‘lives’, and make them physically and intellectually accessible for present and future generations. I make sure they are fully recorded, documented and in good condition for and during display, handled, packed, and transported with care, and made accessible for research, study and appreciation.
I always had an interest in stories, mythology and history. I come from a family with many craftspeople, so grew up making things, building shelves, baking cakes, painting, drawing and playing musical instruments.
After finishing school, I studied art history (sculpture and architecture), classical archaeology and anthropology in my native Germany and during an archaeological excavation in Italy, I rediscovered my passion for ‘tactile’ study and learning while assisting the on-site conservator with recording and small finds processing.
This led me to train and study conservation of surface decoration (BSc) and objects (MA) in the UK. I have trained in the conservation of waterlogged archaeological materials (shipwrecks) at National Museums Scotland and since 2004 worked as conservator for sculpture and installation art in Glasgow.
Since conservation is the practical and technical care of material culture, a portfolio of conservation projects is often required at the interview. I used this to select projects which also communicated my personal interests, skills and expertise of specific materials, objects and associated conservation challenges and/or research. For my current position I was inspired by the possibility of caring for a diverse and substantial collection of sculpture from ancient to contemporary world cultures, and viewed the interview as an opportunity to share what I could bring to the role.
There is no such thing as a typical work day. I have a core program of getting art works and objects ready for exhibition display, juggling multiple deadlines and meetings. I move objects from stores to my workshop, to assess and record their condition, devise treatment proposals for discussion with curator, artist, technicians, learning and access and designers. I carry out treatments such as cleaning, stabilisation of structures, consolidation of friable surfaces, restoration and replacement of missing elements and parts.
I also plan and advise on exhibition installations, storage and packing requirements and environmental conditions for exhibitions, and carry out scientific investigation of materials. I devise reports, surveys and best practice guides for facilities, objects and collections and mentor and supervise conservation students.
Every object is a journey of encounters with ‘people’ from the past: those who made the object, used it, collected and treasured it, cared for it. Each object teaches me something new about materials, ingenuity of working processes, technology and humanity. When I started out I thought it would be all about objects, but over the years I have learned that it is all about people and the 'experience of being human’. Revealing the hidden narratives through the investigation and care of objects makes me feel like a time traveller. I learned how to engage and connect with the stories from the past and/or other cultures. Something I find enriching.
My hands and my ability to problem solve are my most important tools. They allow me to create, utilise and adapt equipment from whatever is available to devise the best care for an object / work of art.
Conservation is a wonderfully diverse and broad vocation. Conservation bridges science and art, it is a continuous process of learning new skills, subjects and techniques and meeting diverse people. It is not very well paid, and often not visible to others which can be challenging when having to communicate why an object may not be suitable for display, needs to be cased or requires substantial investment to be stabilised and restored. There are many avenues to follow and to specialise in within conservation: academia, sciences, art, photography, engineering, outreach, history, crafts, managing and planning logistics for events.
Museum conservation is facing many challenges, in particular having to compete with the focus on marketing and income generation. These often take priority over the qualitative needs for time-consuming protection and preservation care of an object. Yet I believe that conservation as a practice of care has much to offer in inspiring a culture of sustainability. Not only for the care of cultural heritage but also to provide opportunity for collaboration, engagement and participation in general. For the future I hope that conservation can become a much more inclusive and accessible practice for anyone and everyone to participate in.
Stephanie de Roemer received a Jonathan Ruffer curatorial grant to talk at an international conservation summit with artist Christine Borland about Borland's 14-18 NOW commission and conservation concerns regarding contemporary art.
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