Museum Makers: Katie Snow, Museum of London
The Museum of London Applied Arts conservator reveals what it takes to get into conservation, the importance of microscopes and her passion for working with gemstones.
I work on anything that is not paper, textiles or archaeology. This covers a massive range of materials at the Museum of London, from larger scale objects such as vehicles and furniture, the decorative arts collections, including silver and fine jewellery, and seemingly everyday items like the museum’s fabulous collection of pin badges. Some museums have very specialised conservation departments, but at the Museum of London, it is quite broad. I do have a particular interest in metals, and I absolutely love working with the jewellery collections.
I didn't really know what conservation was until I had left university. I was lucky enough to get a fantastic curatorial internship at the National Railway Museum, but this made me realise that I wanted to be doing something practical. During an admin role at the Science Museum my manager encouraged me to take an afternoon a week to volunteer in the conservation department, which I quickly realised was exactly where I wanted to be – working hands on, using my practical skills and judgment to increase the longevity of objects in the collections.
I did a lot of preparation for the interview for my current role, and bored all of my family by making them give me endless practice interviews! Preparing a portfolio is a really important part of preparing for an interview. I make sure I try to include a mix of interesting projects, which highlight different skills, from interventive conservation treatments, through to team working and collections care projects. Even if they do not specifically request a portfolio, it is a useful tool to have, as you can often refer to the projects included to help evidence your answers.
My days vary from writing condition reports to training students to preparing leaky hair products for display. It is these kinds of challenges that make me love my job.
It’s funny that my career path has led me into studying the subjects I disliked at school, such as sciences and maths. In conservation, it is important to understand how different materials can degrade, so an understanding of chemistry is important. Over the past few months, I have been studying a gemmology foundation course with the Gemmological Association of Great Britain, which I was able to enrol on with funding from the museum, an Art Fund Jonathan Ruffer curatorial grant, and a Plowden/Clothworkers continuing professional development grant. It has been amazing to develop my knowledge of the materials I am dealing with in my role here, as understanding what the materials are helps me understand how they might degrade, and will help inform my treatment decisions. The course was really hard work, but fantastic, and I have learnt so much.
Conservation is a role where the learning never really stops. Practices are constantly evolving as new research comes out, so I am always keen on learning from others in the profession and continuing to develop my knowledge.
A microscope is something I could not do without. When working on objects, it is so important to have a very close look at the surfaces so you can often see vulnerabilities that are not visible to the naked eye. It is also a great way to see the workmanship that has gone into making an object, which sometimes totally blows my mind, particularly with the jewellery collections. I often distract my colleagues by dragging them over to look at an interesting inclusion inside a gemstone.
You need to be truly passionate and driven because the work is its own reward. It is important to keep building up your skills – attend short courses, read articles, go to conferences. You also need to be quite flexible and willing to turn your hand to all sorts of work, because there are other aspects to working in conservation beyond the practical, hands-on object work.
I have recently been able to use my new gemmological knowledge at work, which has been fantastic. I have been working on a big project to upgrade the storage of our jewellery collections, and I have been taking that opportunity to look closely at those parts of our jewellery collections that are not catalogued in detail. I have managed to identify a number of stones for which there was no previous identification. I love the fact that my recent training has given me the skills to better understand the collections that I work with.
I really want to continue to develop my specialist skills and knowledge, and have so many plans for the future. I am currently looking into ways that I can continue my gemmology studies, hopefully going on to do the Diploma at the Gemmological Association of Great Britain, which would be hard work but worth it for the in-depth materials knowledge I would develop. I also want to go for professional accreditation with ICON in the next couple of years.
Applications are now open for our conservation grants, which provide funding towards the conservation of objects in UK collections. Find out more and apply.
Our Jonathan Ruffer curatorial grants provide funding for travel and other practical costs, to help curators undertake collections and exhibition research projects in the UK or internationally.