Case study

Conservator — Wendy Jessica Somerville-Woodiwis

Wendy loves the fact that you never stop learning about history through conservation: how an object is made, how to treat it and where it came from. Find out how her career is developing at the National Railway Museum

How did you get your job as a conservator?

After graduating with an MA in the conservation of museum and archaeological objects from Durham University, I successfully applied for a job as a conservator at the National Railway Museum through the Museum Jobs website.

What's a typical day as a conservator like?

I generally start the day by checking emails and replying to enquiries before going on to complete tasks such as putting objects back on display before the museum opens. I might then undertake some project work, for example interventive conservation (practical) on railway rolling stock.

After lunch I could write a condition report for an object that will go on loan and update conservation records the science museum group uses on the digital database so that all my conservation colleagues across various museums can view the same record. I might then attend a meeting for an upcoming exhibition where we'll discuss the objects to go on display, the appropriate environmental conditions and display case they should be in and what accessibility the public have with them.

Other tasks include checking pest traps for moths and other pests in a specific gallery, or writing a blog, article or presentation on conservation projects for the general public and museum colleagues to read. Before going home I need to clean and tidy the lab and equipment.

What do you enjoy about your job?

No two days are the same with conservation and at least fifty percent of my time is spent away from the office. I'm often called to a situation involving the collection in a different part of the museum and am also asked to do offsite work at different museums that have objects on loan.

With conservation comes accessibility and the conservation department has access to the collection that no other department has. For instance, we can access the royal carriages for condition checks, we have access to stores and to the collection in other museums across the country. I simply love objects and the human story each one has.

I love the social side of the profession - we work closely with other conservators and members of staff in the science museum group and have a large group of skilled volunteers who give their time to conservation.

What are the challenges?

Our department is small and the workload is high due to the diversity of what we do. We also have a small budget and are responsible for the care of the collection, which can have high running costs.

Conservation does have a limited career path: senior conservator or manager is as far as a conservator can progress in the public sector. However, there are exceptions. The job is also extremely competitive.

In what way is your degree relevant?

The Masters at Durham is the single most challenging qualification I have ever achieved and without it I wouldn’t have got into the conservation profession. It serves as a good platform for the work I do today in terms of both the practical skills and the methods of writing a clear, concise conservation report.

My Masters also taught me how to communicate and obtain knowledge from other conservators and gave me confidence to pursue my own treatment proposal.

How has your role developed?

My role has a lot more responsibility then it had previously due to the future redevelopment of the museum, which will include extremely large gallery decants. It has also changed in terms of increased preventative conservation compared to interventive conservation (practical).

My career ambitions are to become accredited through ICON (The Institute of Conservation) and to be a senior conservator or manager.

What are your top tips for choosing a Masters?

Choose a Masters which is vocational and check that it fits into the specific conservation sector you want to work in, e.g. public or private, paper conservation, painting conservation, and be prepared to work hard.

What's your advice to other aspiring conservators?

  • Get as much work experience as you can before starting your Masters to give yourself an understanding of what the job will be like.
  • If you know you want to be a conservator at an early age, study chemistry A-level.
  • Be a team player but take the initiative and don’t be afraid to ask and discuss various options.
  • Be prepared to work with the public as the days of working alone in a basement are limited.

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