Experience of Three Conservation Trainees – Erica D’Alessandro, Hollie Drinkwater and Lucy Cokes

P.Z. Conservation is a community interest company, working for the good of the community to protect their heritage and archival objects. We do this by completing pro-bono conservation work on objects and through outreach, such as giving training days. The work is constantly variable and rewarding, and it is this sense of community that drives our work.

A Heritage Lottery Funded (HLF) scheme, P.Z. Conservation is made up from three book conservation trainees, supervised by Lizzie Neville ACR. As new professionals, we are able to learn and improve conservation skills in a traineeship in a beautiful location while interacting with stakeholders from across Cornwall. The trainees’ paths to Penzance have all been different, and we frequently use our different experiences to learn from one another, building passions and knowledge for our community while learning transferable skills for future employment.

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The trainees learn to make book cradles

The traineeship has three main strands dictating the work: Practical conservation and preservation, outreach, and continuing professional development.

Working in the studio has given all trainees the opportunity to develop their hand skills by carrying out practical work and undertaking treatments on objects on a daily basis.

The three trainees begin their time in the studio by making binding models in a variety of styles. This exercise allows the trainees to understand the structure of a book and learn and hone traditional book-binding skills. These techniques will be met time and time again as the trainees repair both modern and historic bindings. The chance to practice book-binding and to undertake conservation treatments under the guidance of supervisor Lizzie has been essential, as it allows the trainees to gain and practise the necessary hand skills to progress in conservation training.

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Hollie and Erica wash a map

The variety of projects that pass through the studio is one of the benefits of working for a private practice. Recently, trainees have been decontaminating a large collection of mouldy and insect-infested books and portfolios. This involved systematically drying, cleaning and freezing some 90 items before housing them in bespoke wrappers in preparation for transportation to a new storage facility.

Many other treatments have been undertaken on flat and archival documents as well as leather and cloth bindings. Erica recently mounted a parchment deed for a private client; Hollie conserved a 19th century indenture for the Hayle Heritage Centre and Lucy repaired a map for Liskeard Museum. The trainees have also worked collaboratively on large rebinding projects for the Royal College of Physicians and Royal College of Music in London.

A large part of our job is to prepare and deliver training courses to volunteers and paid staff working in archives and small institutions across Cornwall. We deliver training on a variety of subjects including handling and repairing library and archival materials, housing and storing collections and preparing material for digitisation. We try to deliver our sessions in a way that is accessible to people with a variety of skill-levels and understanding.

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Lucy demonstrates paper repairs

Our aim is to provide attendees with a theoretical basis to the subjects we cover and practical skills to preserve objects. This provides them with simple techniques that can be employed in their institutions. These training days are funded by HLF and are beneficial for communities and their heritage. More recently, we have reached out to young audiences by presenting our profession to university students and organising Taster Days in our studio in Penzance to build awareness of conservation.

As we want to educate the general public about our mission, preparing and delivering training days is an important part of our job as conservators. These outreach activities also give us the opportunity as emerging conservators to improve our skills in education and communication, which will serve us in our professional careers after our traineeship is completed.

The traineeship allows us enough time to learn how to manage our continuing professional development and to build our contacts. We are very fortunate to have friends in the profession who welcome us into their studios: we have met fellow new professionals at the Parliamentary Archives, and recently embarked on a fascinating conservation studio tour in Cambridge. Visits like this help us discover our interests and gain insight into the places we might like to work after our traineeship is completed.

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Wearing protective gear for mould cleaning

We are also very fortunate to attend conferences and other training days, where we can learn more about the field and new developments within it. The trainees recently attended a photographic materials identification course, and Erica and Lucy went to the Care and Conservation of Manuscripts conference in Copenhagen. All three trainees are also attending ICON’s Book and Paper Conference in October.

A large part of our CPD comes in the form of a work-based training qualification.The Conservation and Collections Care Technicians Diploma is run and awarded by the V&A and ICON, and seeks to validate and assess the wide range of skills that a technician may need when assisting conservators and other heritage professionals. The diploma makes us think a lot about our work – we have no doubt in our minds that completing the qualification will help us to improve and boost our CVs, while also giving us a ‘practice run’ of the conservation accreditation process.

These three themes of our traineeship mean that we will emerge from Cornwall as well-rounded new professionals, ready to help protect heritage. We are so lucky to have this time to be able to find and refine our interests and skills, and this introduction into the field helps us to become the best conservators we can be.

Erica D’Alessandro, Lucy Cokes and Hollie Drinkwater, P.Z. Conservation Trainees

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