Fractured and Remade: Paper Conservation Internship at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery
By Meg Ellis
In June 2014, I undertook a three week internship as a compulsory core unit of the Masters of Cultural Materials Conservation course at the University of Melbourne. The decision to approach the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG), located on the water near Salamanca in Hobart, had been in my thoughts since my initial move to Melbourne for this course in 2012.
Hobart is a meditative city, nestled below Mount Wellington with the arms of the harbour hugging the River Derwent. But if Hobart is a beautiful and picturesque city, it is also one that is acutely aware of its history. A history of convict slave labour, high unemployment and illiteracy rates, and the stigma of being Australia’s detached and oft forgotten state. Recent recognition of Tasmania’s frontier battles, known as the Black War, the conflict between european settlers and the Palawa (Indigenous Tasmanians) in 1824–1831 resulted in a decimation more complete than the massacres that occurred on the mainland during invasion.
Described by David Walsh (in Griffith Review’s excellent compilation of Tasmania past, present and future), as having a ‘fractured and remade identity’, Tasmania has a unique place in the nation’s imaginary. The people here, illustrated through protests, petitions, policies and now a vibrant art and cultural scene, demonstrate a willingness to face that history, dwell in its darkness for a moment (a kind of therapy, perhaps), and then move forward.
TMAG was established in 1843 and is the only state-owned combined museum and gallery in Australia. This is interesting to think about from both a curatorial and a conservation perspective. What objects are privileged for treatment and display above others? How does combining objects of natural science and fine art in a space effect exhibition decisions and interpretations? For instance, the Thylacine room in TMAG leads straight into a chronology of Tasmanian history, and from there galleries showing paintings and works on paper from the collection and on loan. This integrated approach highlighted practicalities concerning lighting, treatment and storage requirements for each display. These decisions are compacted when considering conservation requirements for objects and invited reflection on conservation decision-making: how can preventive conservation measures mediate the needs of individual collections and that of the public?
In many ways, this is a curatorial move that mirrors the exhibitions at David Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA). Built in 2011 from Walsh’s controversial gambling fortune, MONA has developed into one of Tasmania’s largest tourism drawcards with its annual DARK MOFO festival injecting more than $20 million into the local economy. By privately funding MONA, Walsh sidesteps sponsorships that could potentially endanger the creative and controversial exhibitions that MONA is famed for. This is particularly important considering imposing funding cuts to the arts since the announcement of the Coalition’s proposed 2014 budget in March.
The budget papers claim that savings of $2.4 million over four years will be achieved by consolidating the back office functions of prominent collection agencies including the National Portrait Gallery, National Gallery of Australia, National Library of Australia, Old Parliament House, National Film and Sound Archive, National Museum of Australia and the National Archives of Australia. This consolidation endangers funding for conservation departments and places national collections at risk. Repercussions of this were already felt when arts policies were announced for Tasmania in March 2014. Has there been a shift in the language used in policies that reflect a limited appreciation of the intangible benefits of art on a community, rather they focus on the economic impact of the addition of MONA as central to Tasmania’s ‘cultural renaissance’? The suggestion here is that state funding for TMAG and the local arts scene is no longer at the fore because of the impact of MONA.
These issues and more were discussed with my practice-supervisor, senior paper conservator Cobus van Breda. Living in Hobart for the majority of his life, Cobus has a keen understanding of the nature of the cultural climate and it was with great interest I was able to learn of the interesting dynamic occurring between TMAG and MONA. This dynamic is perhaps under-researched, particularly the 2012 collaboration in MONA’s successful Theatre of the World exhibit where many objects on loan from TMAG demonstrated the potential for both institutions to benefit from curatorial and collection exchange.
While tangible effects of conservation, such as policy, economic or physical repercussions of treating objects may be obvious, Munoz-Vinas argues that conservation processes also have ‘intangible, communicative effects’. The historical, social or symbolic value of objects in collections is what is conserved when considering the decision-making that goes into Cobus’ practice, because these intangible values hold the most significance to the society in which they belong. This thought process emphasised throughout my internship incited my interest in examining issues such as policy within conservation and the notion that conservation is increasingly a multifaceted, interdisciplinary and fluid profession.
Visit TMAG to learn more about their collections.