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Spotlight: The MSc that seeks to answer one of conservation’s biggest challenges

Spearheaded by Icon member Dr Anita Quye, the University of Glasgow has recently announced the launch of an innovative 1-year MSc in Modern Material Artefacts by its Centre for Textile Conservation and Technical Art History (CTCTAH). With input from more than 50 experts in the industry, the programme intends to broach an increasingly present and complex issue in museums and archives: what do we do with all the ‘everyday’ synthetic materials?

In the late 1980s, interest in plastics and their conservation began to emerge from the sheer number of modern artefacts in collections worldwide. At that time Anita Quye was an analytical research scientist for National Museums Scotland, researching modern materials as ‘everyday’ and designer objects in decorative arts, social history and fashion collections. This opened up new questions for her about plastics and she joined the growing conservation science debate.

She says, “For many decades modern materials have been a hot topic in conferences and research conversations. I have always looked at modern collections through the lens of their manufacturing materials and methods as well chemistry to understand why plastics - and now synthetic dyes and fibres - differ in how long they last. I see a need for new perspectives for their conservation, a new angle on material quality and technical advances in the design and production history of everyday artefacts.”


img_2156.jpgThe degraded contents of a manicure set from the first half of C20th

In her current role as CTCTAH’s Senior Lecturer in Conservation Science, Anita has brought more material technology and art history into her research and teaching. This led to her shaping a new postgraduate programme for the modern materials that are so prevalent as common artefacts in museums and archives. Backed by Professor Frances Lennard, director of CTCTAH, the idea for this interdisciplinary approach was met with a very positive response, which then led on to a scoping study undertaken by Icon member Fiona Macalister ACR and funded by the Textile Conservation Foundation.

As part of the study Fiona targeted c.70  professional colleagues and organisations, nationally and internationally, to identify gaps in existing provision and for views on their needs to develop the MSc. Those consulted included employers, practitioners, academics and emerging conservators , who were considered to be the most important group as they would be the ones to take these ideas forward. Many of those who responded are Icon members, who greatly informed the scoping study and the subsequent programme.

Alison Richmond ACR, Icon’s Chief Executive was part of this group:

‘I was excited about being part of the scoping group looking at the potential for a new course in modern materials at the University of Glasgow. The profession has been aware of the need for training, education and research aimed at the vast collections containing modern materials that are deteriorating before our eyes, with some now unusable due to their irreversibly damaged condition. The new course at Glasgow will set the profession on course to meet this need.’

Additionally, the course was crafted with much input from research carried out by Icon (including the findings in Icon’s sector skills analysis, Conservation Labour Market Intelligence 2012-2013 and the hosting of an Icon HLF funded internship in the conservation of modern materials at the V&A in 2014/15).

leather_coated_with_cellulose_nitrate_in_the_house_of_fraser_archive_at_the_university_of_glasgow_ugd_335_12_11.jpgLeather coated with cellulose nitrate in the House of Fraser Archive at the University of Glasgow

Commenting on what benefits the programme will bring to the conservation profession, Fiona said that “The benefits are great. It will help to better equip, and inform, conservators and those with responsibility for modern material collections, in the long-term care and preservation of these collections, contributing through research projects to the body of knowledge.”

On what practical and theoretical skills the MSc will give its students, Anita said, “I want people taking the programme to use their eyes and minds as much as technical analysis to determine what something is made of. I want students to hone an interdisciplinary ‘toolkit’ from applied arts and commercial production as well as cutting-edge conservation science to look closely and carefully at an object, to understand its history and composition. Bringing this interdisciplinary perspective to the forefront of modern material conservation will help practical treatment decisions and ethical discussions about what to do and why based on artefact significance.”

“If someone is excited about the prospect of bringing their own conservation perspective and exploring and growing it through the history of art, history of design and technology, this is the programme that will facilitate that.” she concludes, hoping that the programme - which is now taking applications - will attract enough students this year to keep shaping and expanding the curriculum in the future.

Thanks to The Clothworkers’ Foundation a number of bursaries are being offered for the inaugural year of the programme. The bursaries will be administered by the Textile Conservation Foundation and all applicants will be provided with details.

Images © University of Glasgow


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