Student Conservators at Melbourne

2015 RSL Lifecare Museum

RSL Lifecare Museum

Meghan Ellis mounting works on paper at the new RSL Lifecare Museum / Photograph by Dominic King

Meghan Ellis mounting works on paper at the new RSL Lifecare Museum / Photograph by Dominic King


5 MAY 2015

By Meghan Ellis + Dominic King

Meghan Ellis: 
The last time I visited Narrabeen Village was in 2013, a first year Masters student being exposed to my first conservation-in-the-field volunteer experience. Working in the old museum, a concrete room with fluorescent lighting and no windows (but not without charm), I recall now a comment from one of the supervisors present. She said that the residents of the village visit the museum not to view the objects, but to re-live memories. The dim lighting, the dust, the cluttered displays - none of it mattered when a collection so unique and interesting could be explored, touched and lived through.

The new museum is clean, sparkling, with a library, sliding drawers of artefacts and bespoke lighting to highlight this wonderful collection. The repurposed dining hall now is fitted out with museum standard showcases highlighting key pieces of the collection donated by residents, alongside items bought from auction and loaned from other institutions in Australia. Where the old museum was perhaps difficult to walk through (let alone maneuver in a wheelchair), the new building has wide hallways, slick text labels with large font and extended opening hours.

Dominic King dressing mannequins / Photograph by Meghan Ellis

As students, our job in this crucial last stage of installation was to provide the finishing touches for displays. With the deadline of a very special day at the Village – the 100 year centenary of Anzac – and three-quarter-finished display cases, the pressure was on to create a polished-looking and sustainable display for the museum committee members and volunteers to show off. Mounts for works on paper, photographs and framed objects were constructed to be removed in the future if displays needed change.  Object mounts, and mounts for textiles (including over 80 tally bands) were individually crafted using conservation-grade materials and techniques. Mannequins were dressed; model airplanes, flags and parachutes were expertly mounted into the ceiling.

The view from our accommodation mid-storm / Photograph by Dominic King

Aside from the vicious storms that ravaged most of the south-east coast of New South Wales during our stay and caused the ceiling to collapse in our accommodation, spirits were high and the team worked long hours happily. An overwhelming moment for me was opening the doors to residents, particularly one resident who I had the pleasure of meeting during my stay. 99 year old Una Keast (she turns 100 this year in August) is a celebrated member of the Village and has donated many objects to the museum collection over the years. Visiting Una to accept her donation of a framed photograph of the signing of the treaty at Morotai and hearing her account of that day, and of her experience as a nurse in multiple conflicts was a special encounter. It left me with a keen sense of why we were doing what we were doing and how important this museum is for the residents. While the dust is gone, the significance of the collection is certainly not, and I feel privileged to have played a small part in this project.

Birds who had taken up residence on the flooded lawn balls green outside the museum / Photograph by Dominic King

Birds who had taken up residence on the flooded lawn balls green outside the museum / Photograph by Dominic King

Dominic King:
Having just completed the second treatment intensive at CCMC, it was very rewarding to see many of the objects that had been treated by students in Melbourne returned to the museum and the residents. I was fortunate enough to see a photograph I had worked on as a major assessment piece travel from my bench in Melbourne to its showcase in Sydney. To finish treatment on an object and then mount it in its permanent display was a feeling of accomplishment only surpassed by watching the residents of the village interact with it.

Residents viewing the new displays / Photograph by Dominic King

However, the realities of treating and installing objects at the new RSL Lifecare museum was a very different approach to what many of us students were used to. Working for many hours on single objects was not feasible when working with a collection of significant scope, and a hard ANZAC day deadline. One example springs to mind as being particularly frustrating: a large framed photograph (of the victory parade down Swanston Street in 1919) had to be taken apart and cleaned. Meg and I carefully removed the brittle and acidic mount from the old frame and cleaned the mould off the glass, the surface dirt and grime off the photograph, and cleaned the wooden frame before reassembling the package, drilling in new d-rings for hanging, and placing it on the wall. This photograph could just as easily have been a student’s 40-plus hour treatment back in Melbourne, but it needed to be in the exhibition in time for the opening.

I’m sure this photograph will have a full conservation treatment in time, but for now is an example of doing the bare minimum from a conservation perspective when met with the real-world circumstances of an exhibition installation. Despite the cataclysmic weather in NSW, the trip was a hugely positive experience and none of the team were overcome by the circumstances.   

Meghan Ellis removing the photograph described above from its frame / Photograph by Dominic King

Many thanks are due to Sophie Lewincamp, the co-ordinator of the Narrabeen RSL Lifecare – University of Melbourne project, to Felicity Strong and Lisa Yeats, our supervisors and dedicated members of the project, to Bob Courtney and Jordi Casasayas, and to the other team members from stage 19 – Jemima Cowey, Kendrie Richardson and Margot Murray.