Helen Privett

Senior Conservator

Listen and read

If a stranger asks me what I do… I say I work on Museum Victoria’s collections, doing conservation and restoration of the objects. I usually throw “restoration” in because most people understand restoration and the concept of restoration more than they do conservation.

The first thing I do when I get to work is… very different on every single day, to be honest. Some days I can sit down and sit at the computer all day, typing up reports or communicating with people. Other days I can be brush-vacuuming an object or helping people get into showcases.

And later this week I will… be giving a presentation with a curator from the history and technology division about a treatment that I performed on the Fawkner Press, which is in The Melbourne Story exhibition. The Fawkner Press made the first newspaper in Melbourne. It came to Australia in the 1840s and was part of the Intercolonial Exhibition in 1866 and then came into our collection in 1870. So it’s actually one of the oldest history and technology objects in the collection.

It was a really great treatment. We reconfigured the press back to the way it should have been operated and should have looked for the first time in about a hundred years. It’s a letter press and we worked with a specialist who is an expert in printmaking and in printing presses.

I first got into this area… straight out of high school. I found out about conservation when I had to go on a chemistry excursion when I was about sixteen years old: we went to the Australian War Memorial conservation annexe, which is off-site from their building in Canberra. And we saw an electrolytic reduction of corrosion treatment on an aircraft, and I just thought that was the best thing I’d ever seen and so I found out when I was sixteen what it was I wanted to do and I went across the road from my high school to the university of Canberra and learnt how to be a conservator.

In my job it’s important to… pay a lot of attention to detail, to be aware of the ethics around doing conservation treatments and be aware of the history of the object. Ethics in conservation is about looking at preserving the history of the object as much as we can. So that might actually mean preserving residues or accretions that have formed on an object, whether that be from deterioration because of where the object’s been stored or the way that an object's been used, or wear patterns from how someone’s rubbed against an object, or how they’ve used a tool. So it’s about acknowledging the history of the object as well as how people might interpret it now.

Others say I… must be very patient.

In my job, I never dreamed I would… have such diversity – especially at Museum Victoria, we have such a great collection and we treat everything from the tiniest bugs, all the way through to the biggest horse-drawn carriages, and whale skeletons all the way through to medals and coins. So there’s always diversity and it’s always interesting.

If I had a magic wand… I would use it to clean exhibition showcases. It’s probably the part of our job that we enjoy the least. We do that once every six months – all of the showcases across all of the campuses, so it’s a lot of work. It takes us quite a long way away from actually doing object treatments but it’s something that has to be done for the public so that they can see the objects better and so that the showcases look presentable.

In the crystal ball I can see… that my job will be looking a lot more at the environmental impact that conservation and preservation of the collections has on the world around us: the materials that we use, the types of conditions that we insist on having for objects and whether there are ways that we can be more energy-efficient while still providing the best standards possible for objects in our care. 

What’s that for?
Helen with rolls of archival conservation materialsThis is a set of rolled storage that we have and we have all of our rolls of different types of fabric and materials that we use in conservation treatments. So for example, the shiny plastic material is called silicone release Mylar and we use that when we’re doing various treatments with adhesive, to make sure that we can release the object from a surface, for example. We might be impregnating a textile, for example, with adhesive to then use in a treatment and if we paste it out onto that then we can actually then release it from the Mylar really quickly and easily once the adhesive’s dried. So it’s very useful.

Outside of the office… I like to have no collections or clutter in my house. I have very, very sparse living space that doesn’t have any groups or collections of objects, with the exception of books. I try and keep my life very fuss-free.

Music provided by The Orbweavers

“We reconfigured the [Fawkner] Press back to the way it looked for the first time in about a hundred years.”

Image Gallery

Fawkner's Press Helen Privett Helen Privett