Updated: May 19
People have the darnedest things under their beds. Or tucked into drawers, packed into boxes, hoarded in suitcases and mouldering in frames behind fly-spotted glass. Museums also have the strangest things in their collections, but the difference is that these objects are gathered to service a story.
For Victoria Gill, there's nothing sadder than an object with no story, nothing more frustrating than a person laden with guilt, proffering an item culled from the belongings of another, with no idea of its provenance. As a trained conservator, she is accustomed to appraising an object's worth, to weighing up the pros and cons of giving something her professional time. Throughout her career, she has worked on antique tapestries, 100-year-old teddy bears, vintage flapper dresses, silk lithographs and Victorian mourning jewellery woven with real hair.
Delicate work: Victoria Gill, left, discusses a lithograph with owner Marie Nicholls and fellow conservator Alexa McNaught-Reynolds. The lithograph is by Marion Griffin. Photo: Graham Tidy
Having worked her way through many of the national cultural institutions in Canberra – the Australian War Memorial, the National Gallery, the National Archives and National Museum – she has worked with teams on objects that form part of a large collection created to tell a story. But as a private conservator and consultant, she's lost count of the times she has had to gently break the news that something might not be worth saving. She cringes when clients admit that they have come across a dusty, dishevelled but probably meaningful item in a family collection, without having a clue who kept it and why.
She can save something from deteriorating completely, but she can't restore a story. She can't give something meaning from thin air.
Conservators Andrew Pearce and Victoria Gill at their shop Endangered Heritage in Phillip. Photo: Melissa Adams
It's a weekday morning and we're in the workshop she runs with her partner Andrew Pearce in Phillip. Both trained conservators, the pair have struck out alone, after falling victim to the federal government's ever more savage efficiency dividend. Gill was most recently on a contract at the National Archives, and Pearce at the War Memorial. Both have bachelor degrees in applied science in conservation from the University of Canberra, and both graduated in the late 1990s, back when the course was the only one of its kind in Australia.
It's a field of study that's a vocation, rather than merely a profession. Gill was finishing a fine arts degree from the Australian National University, specialising in tapestries, when she realised her passion for conservation. Pearce, meanwhile, was an electrician before settling into the science degree in Canberra. But, in such a specialised area, even in Canberra, jobs of the permanent, tenured variety are hard to come by. Put crudely, a conservator has to retire or die for his or her job to become available.
"Someone literally has to die in our profession for there to be a vacancy for a permanent position, because once you're permanent, where else are you going to go?" says Gill.
"The hardest thing at the institutions from a professional level is there's no personal or career advancement. Systematically, you sit and you're meant to be grateful to sit."
Both from Adelaide, Gill and Pearce graduated in different years, and their paths rarely crossed as they worked their way through the different institutions. But having reconnected, they also realised, long before the last federal election, that the writing was on the wall when it came to their jobs, and that at any rate, their profession was vastly misunderstood.
But a victim's mentality doesn't rule when it comes to Endangered Heritage, the business Gill set up 10 years ago from her home in Duffy. Then, it was a way of helping the community recover from the devastating 2003 bushfires. Many of Gill's friends and neighbours lost their homes, and Gill ran weekend workshops on disaster preparedness, and how to organise items relating to family heritage or artworks.
"It's good to have – I wouldn't say everything all in the one place, because you shouldn't have all your eggs in one basket, but to know where they are to be able to gather them quickly," she says.
"So that's why I set up in Duffy off the beaten track."
Although she struggled to get a bank loan – the average bank would rather finance a suburban coffee shop than a conservation business – she took a risk and set up a workshop.
"Within six months it outgrew the lab," she says.
"Even with almost no marketing budget, within three years I had six staff and we had to relocate."
She chose instead to shut the lab, moved overseas with her now ex-husband and worked for five years in Asia. She project-managed the establishment of the National Textiles Museum of Malaysia, and worked on heritage assessments in China and the Philippines.
"A lot of it was volunteer work, too, through aid agencies, consulting to institutions and museums," she says.
"We cry poor here in Australia! In Asian collections, I would set up volunteer programs with people and train and pass on my skills while I was there for them to try and look after their own heritage."
She helped to train local tailors – "literally sewers plucked off the street" – in textile conservation, and many still contact her with dilemmas.
"I still do quite a bit of mentoring, which I really enjoy, which is really fun," she says. "And there's the beginning of a recognition of the profession in Malaysia."
And now, Gill and Pearce, who plan to marry at the end of the year – she is shortly to become Victoria Pearce – have established their own workshop in a nondescript strip of shops in Phillip, surrounded by tailors, hospitality suppliers and liquor stores. And that's entirely the point.
"The reason we're in Phillip is because we're trying really quite actively to remove the idea that conservators live in the basement with a microscope at the Smithsonian or the British Museum, but there they are alive and doing well in Australia, and are available," says Gill.
On the day of my visit, we gather reverently around a large chunk of wood on the floor in the area of the workshop known as the vault.
It is, in fact, just that – a vault designed to keep safe many of the incredibly valuable things that pass through the shop's doors for treatment. Unsurprisingly, a lot of their work is consultancies for the institutions that once employed them. There's more to the wood than meets the eye; it hails from Pozieres, France, the site of a bloody battle in 1916. The tree was lugged home as a souvenir, and forms part of the War Memorial's collection. Pearce – who spent years working on the painstaking restoration of the Avro Lancaster B1 – is applying his expertise to this piece of wood in preparation for the Centenary of Anzac next year.
Gill, meanwhile, is beside herself with excitement about a Hungarian doll that has just come in.
"Because we are a country of waves of migration, often people come here with nothing," she says.
"But if they're bringing a child, the child will be allowed to bring one thing. So our migration history is also full of all of these families whose only thing from the country of origin is a child's toy, so you'll get lots of little toy buses or train sets or dolls or teddies or something that was the one attachment object that the child was allowed to bring in."
While some objects are more valuable in monetary terms than other – hence the vault – she is just as likely to find herself working with a $3 toy that once belonged to a child who died. And often, with their different and overlapping areas of expertise, the two will find themselves working on the same item. A timber box with cloth fastenings, for instance, or a porcelain doll with a torn dress.
"We'll have things from soft toys [and] 100-year-old teddy bears to a couple of antique Chinese embroideries that were shirt-front embroideries," she says.
"We'll get antique wedding dresses, and Andrew has had some ivory carvings, stone carvings, ceramic figurines, ship's bells."
Surprisingly often, someone will bring in something incredibly precious and valuable, with no idea of what they're dealing with. One man, for example, came with a carpet spun in gold. There was a woman with a string of antique pearls and several intricate flapper dresses that showered beads every time they moved.
Some jobs are more challenging than others. When a loaned item came into the National Library just days before it was due to be hung in a major exhibition, they called Gill in a panic. A delicate silk lithograph by Marion Mahony Griffin had been framed behind glass and hanging in a living room for 80 years. The silk had fractured and stuck to the glass, and the entire thing was close to disintegrating.
"Usually when we're working with institutions, we're working with fellow colleagues who understand those risks," she says. "So it's a bit more nerve-racking when you're working on a loaned item, when you're really trying to impart the gravitas of the intervention to a private owner who might not be as aware of the risks."
"And there are always risks. Conservators are conservative, conservation is conservative. We only use materials that are really tried, true, tested, scientifically rigorously tested, and we always try and intervene as minimally as we can, so that there's less chance of something going on. We're not trying to make it look new, we're trying to preserve what's remaining of it, including its story."
Gill worked round the clock to save the fragile silk, and the object survived, Lazurus-style, resurrected to hang proudly on the wall. But Gill is just as invested in the objects destined for suburban sitting rooms and precious private collections.
Their services even extend to house calls, where Gill and Pearce can help someone triage their own collections, cataloguing Persian rugs or assessing paintings for conservation needs. Medical terminology is rife in this profession, and the stakes are sometimes high. Yet the process is not nearly as expensive as people think.
"I can pretty much go out on a limb and say the award rate for us is less than a hairdresser, so go figure," says Gill.
"Most people think of conservation as being expensive, and that's something that's really crazy, because if you look at something that's really damaged and you go, 'Oh my god, that will take hours to fix', people are surprised when they come in here and I say, 'That's going to take me 15 minutes'. I've got the skill, I've got the training, I've got the correct tools, I've got the correct adhesives, and all of the ability to do it, and I'm already set up, whereas if you try to fix it at your own kitchen table, just getting everything out to set it up is going to take you an hour."
She even has a fixed price for cleaning christening gowns – "$120, really not that much" - and the pair are stocking the shop with adhesives and tools to allow more people to do their own conservation work.
Five months since opening, business is well on the way to booming. Endangered Heritage has come a long way since its first incarnation at the Duffy shops, and these two refugees have no regrets about leaving the fickle public sector.
"When you work with a national collection, you're working with a curator, and they're trying to tell a story to the public that interests everyone," Gill says.
"They go through their catalogue and they pick out a few things and they go, this will tell the story, and they care about their exhibition.
"But when we get people who come in and say, 'My bear got eaten by the cat!', it's so personal and meaningful and you're dealing with the actual owner who knows the whole history of the object. There's such a strong, beautiful pull working with actual people who are the custodians of the objects in an immediate way, that it's a real pleasure. So that's one of the nicest things working in private practice."
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