Clair Battison, senior preservation Conservator at Victoria & Albert Museum recently worked on restoring and planning the display of items in Disobedient Objects, an exhibition showcasing designs by protest groups and activists.
Could you tell us about your role at the V&A? How did you come to be working at the museum?
My background is in fine arts. I did a degree in sculpture and used to prepare paper-based objects for storage. I started working in a similar role at the V&A around 18 years ago, but my job has evolved a lot since then.
The V&A has several conservation departments, from paper to ceramics, textiles, books, furniture and sculpture. Working within the paper conservation team, I’m responsible for the preservation of items on loan and from the museum’s collection. My role includes assessing objects, making recommendations for their repair or conservation and carrying out repairs in the studio.
I also work in a liaison role: a conservation liaison is appointed for each V&A project and is responsible for working with curators, designers, co-ordinators, technicians and representatives from each conservation department to ensure collections are displayed in a suitable way. Each object has to be considered individually and treatments, lighting, display and mounting requirements discussed and agreed.
I work with a wide range of people from outside the V&A, too. For some projects, we have to bring in experts on particular areas. With contemporary shows, I’ll work closely with designers and lenders, which is great as I get to find out some really interesting stories about the objects and how they were made.
What is a typical day like?
A typical day might include several meetings and some practical conservation work. A large exhibition may contain up to 400 objects and for a small show, it’s more like 100, so we can often be working on thousands of objects at once.
The complexity and type of projects [we work on] really varies – in Disobedient Objects, for example, I worked with our textiles team to restore a huge Russian protest banner [shown right]. The lettering on it was peeling off, and I had to find paper in exactly the right colour to repair it. It’s a very emotionally charged show, you’re not just preserving the authenticity of items, but what they stand for, so it was important to ensure the message on this banner wasn’t lost.
What other shows have you enjoyed working on at the V&A?
A few years ago, I worked on Decode, an exhibition of interactive digital artworks and installations, which was the first time I had dealt with this kind of material. We had to work out how to record the condition of the objects and make sure the interactive pieces could withstand a high volume of people playing with them – a show at the V&A might receive hundreds of thousands of visitors and go on tour afterwards, so we had to test what would and wouldn’t work.
Another show I really enjoyed recently was Elmgreen and Dragset’s [in which contemporary artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset turned five of the museum’s galleries into the apartment of a fictional architect]. It really challenged the idea of interactive – galleries were set up to look like a lounge, kitchen, bedroom and study and you could walk around them, becoming a part of the artwork. There were a lot of things to put in place, as we had to determine what could and couldn’t be touched and how visitors would respond to the space.
As the role of the V&A changes, so does the kind of collections we work on. The rapid response team could collect virtually anything [past rapid response exhibits, collated in response to major events, include a 3D printed gun and a pair of jeans from the Rana Plaza clothing factory in Bangladesh which collapsed in 2013, killing more than 1,000 people], so we have to be on top of that and prepared for it.
What are the most challenging aspects of your job? And the most rewarding?
The job can be tiring; the hours can be long and you’re managing a lot of people’s expectations (from artists to visitors), but I enjoy the challenge. It’s a great feeling when a show comes together, and I love going to the gallery and seeing people enjoying and talking about the work. I’ve always been interested in working with materials and understanding how things are made, and I like problem solving.
What are the key skills needed for your role?
You need a keen eye for detail, a lot of patience and a calm approach. You’ll be working to a lot of deadlines and with a lot of different people, so you’ll need to be flexible and diplomatic, too.
And what advice do you have for people interested in a career in conservation?
It’s a competitive industry, but there are several routes into it – the Institute of Conservation lists both galleries and private conservation practitioners, some of which offer placements. The V&A also runs a conservation NVQ and work experience programmes.
Disobedient Objects was featured in CR August. It is at the V&A until February 2015, vam.ac.uk