by Beth Gillions, Textile Conservator, People’s History Museum.
‘How long have you been there now? 18 months? 2 years? No, it must be longer than that!’ My friend’s disbelief mirrors mine exactly. It seems only two weeks and yet also a lifetime ago, that I left Glasgow and my studies just over a year ago for the delights of my parents spare room and an actual, proper conservation job.
Ahead of starting my MPhil Textile Conservation, a conservator friend warned me that the volume of work to be expected in Glasgow was comparable to the pressure of medical or veterinary degrees. So it was with both trepidation and enthusiasm that I began my studies. It turned out that the aspect no-one could have ever prepared me for was just how fulfilling it would all be.
The MPhil programme at Glasgow is certainly all consuming, it eats your life for a time. But because of the support of its dedicated tutors, what it gives is so much more. My training was a grounding point and a springboard, equipping me with the tools to start. Whether that is to start a huge and intimidating object treatment, to develop a new technique, or to prompt constructive conversations with other heritage professionals. I am always enabled and guided by the reflective approaches which underwrote every aspect of the course, and which I hope will direct my practice for years to come.
Perhaps my strongest memory from my time at the CTC was a daft and momentary whinge to Sarah Foskett that I didn’t want to compile a dissertation and never wanted to write: I just want someone to pay me to stitch and then leave work at work. She laughingly told me it wouldn’t be long till I joined a group, or wrote a paper, that I would never stick to my vow to avoid academia or extra-curricular conservation activities because there is always something interesting to learn or to share. A year on and, of course, you were right Sarah. I am now on the ICON textiles committee, I oversee our studio’s Instagram page, have designed and am running interactive conservation workshops for the public, am contributing to a book chapter written with colleagues, and formulating plans for case studies and papers (after all, if no-one else has written it yet I might as well).
In the last year working at the People’s History Museum in Manchester my colleagues have given me a phenomenal amount of exciting (and CV building) opportunities. I have treated various objects, experimented with new techniques, worked on a huge scale, installed and deinstalled exhibitions, taught on training courses, driven my tiny Peugeot to High Schools and Masonic Halls to carry out estimates, spoken to film crews and podcasters about conservation, led tours, and attended awards ceremonies, to name just a few. And I have loved (almost) every second of it.
The truth of it is that you pursue a career in conservation for the love of it. I was lucky to learn that love when I was small, and formulated a plan to one day make it my job to be the one who had keys to the back rooms of the museum, the one who got to touch all the stuff. I am, as it turns out now realising that plan. I don’t know where it goes from here, but I do know that every time I get asked if my work is what I had hoped, that I have no other answer than ‘Better. Far better’. So whatever happens in the years to come, if anyone needs me, I’ll be at the back of the museum looking after the stuff.