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News The life of an emerging conservator

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​Left: WUDPAC alumna Claire Taggart (left) helping Principal Conservation Scientist Bronwyn Ormsby take samples to identify materials present on a work being acquired by Tate. Right: ’Juniper Tree’ (1976, reconstructed 1994) by Joan Jonas. Image courtesy of the artist and Tate. (Images © Tate 2018)

​​Class of 2018 WUDPAC alumna Claire Taggart's work at Tate London was recently featured in ICON NEWS, The Magazine of the Institute of Conservation. The article below originally appeared in Issue 79 (December 2018) of the magazine. Our thanks to the authors and ICON for sharing this article. (More information about ICON is available at


Libby Ireland and Claire Taggart share an internship with Tate’s Sculpture and Installation Conservation Department

In February 2018, we both arrived at Tate Sculpture and Installation Conservation department: Claire from the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC) in Delaware, USA, and Libby from the Institute of Archaeology at University College London. We were both undertaking the placement as a required part of the final year of our postgraduate conservation courses. Over the next six months, we spent a lot of time getting to know one another, as well as Tate’s collection, whilst experiencing a range of conservation roles. The department was extremely welcoming and we learnt a great deal from the experienced conservators at Tate, as well as one another.

Although we were based at Tate Britain, we worked across Tate’s sites and gained experience in many areas including loan and exhibition preparation, exhibition installation, pre-acquisition reporting, maintenance, research and treatment. As we both studied on broader object conservation courses, the placement was a valuable opportunity to work with contemporary and modern art – a specialism we are both very interested in. It was also an opportunity to appreciate the workings of a large institution, allowing us to gain an understanding of the logistics and planning that is involved in the extensive exhibition and loan programmes at Tate.


While many of our treatments were undertaken collaboratively, we also each identified individual projects to research in-depth. Claire explored the manufacture and degradation mechanisms of an injection-moulded polypropylene chair from the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden; this research resulted in the thoughtful cleaning of the 1970s era plastic. Libby spent time investigating the break behaviour of poly-methyl methacrylate (PMMA), testing adhesives to inform the repair of a PMMA artwork. In hindsight, we can also see our individual interests highlighted through other projects we undertook. Tate staff were supportive in allowing us to develop skills in our areas of interest, nurturing Claire’s desire to work with conservation science and Libby’s interest in project planning and artist interviews.

Working together has been a great opportunity to connect over the similarities and differences in our educational experiences. We found this a useful way of filling knowledge gaps, as well as learning from one another’s approaches to problem-solving.

Claire Taggart (left) and Libby Ireland (right) undertaking repairs and stabilisation of a component of ‘Juniper Tree’ by Joan Jonas. Image courtesy of the artist and Tate. (Image © Tate 2018)


An interesting part of our internships was participating in Tate’s active acquisition programme. This involved creating reports for the acquisition of four artworks. It was a rich learning experience as we were able to collaborate with the conservation science team and engage with the curator overseeing the purchase. This was an exercise in thinking about the long-term life of the work, as we had to consider future issues that the materials might present. We also worked with the senior technician and supervising conservators to understand packing needs and resource implications of moving the work into the collection, an area we had little experience in.


Near the beginning of our internships, we helped on the installation of an exhibition of work by Joan Jonas at Tate Modern. Jonas is a pioneer of performance and video art and the exhibition gives a comprehensive overview of her career, including seminal pieces from the 1960s alongside current work. Particularly, we focussed on ‘Juniper Tree’ (1976, reconstructed 1994), an installation created from a series of performance pieces based around a Brothers Grimm fairy-tale by the same name. This work presents the stage as though the performance has just finished, complete with stage-lights, alongside documentation from previous performances.

Our work included condition checking all objects, overseeing installation and undertaking a minor treatment on one element of the work. As this exhibition will travel to further venues following its display at Tate Modern, it was important that condition reports be easy to read and that changes in condition could easily be identified by those unfamiliar with the work.

When one element - a pile of branches - was unpacked, it was found to be in poor condition. The twigs had become dehydrated and brittle, and many fractures and breaks were present. Before completing treatment, we were able to speak briefly with the artist to confirm that the current condition was not intended. We could then complete repairs to the objects, applying Japanese tissue tinted with acrylic paints using pH neutral polyvinyl acetate to support and re-attach loose elements. As this treatment was undertaken during installation, it had to be done quickly and within the space available.

Working on this installation allowed us to gain an understanding of how conservation is planned into exhibitions within such a large-scale institution. We learnt to work collaboratively with the art handlers and curators, to make sure that all staff could undertake the tasks they needed to complete. It was also interesting to see how artworks are prepared to be part of touring exhibitions, with conservators having to understand the resources needed to transport and display the work – including packing and electrical issues.

​Left: A record from ‘Asleep in the Deep’ (2002) by Anna Lena Vaney. Right: ‘Asleep in the Deep’ (2002) by Anna Lena Vaney on display at Tate Modern. (Images courtesy of the artist and Tate. © Anna Lena Vaney 2018)


During our placements, we were able to gain some experience in interviewing artists - creating questionnaires to be sent by email and taking part in face-to-face interviews. We also used this method of research more widely, getting in touch with fabricators to understand artworks. One such instance was aiding preparation for the display of ‘Asleep in the Deep’ by Anna Lena Vaney.

This artwork consists of a number of audio pieces stored on forty vinyl records and mini-discs. The work was inspired by a manga character named ‘Ann Lee’ whom artists Pierre Huyghe and Phillippe Parreno bought the copyright for and commissioned others to make work around. Other works created as part of this process completed the display in which ‘Asleep in the Deep’ was to be shown.

The Time-Based Media department at Tate has transferred the audio to a digital format which is used for display, and the Sculpture and Installations department care for the physical records. When the records were unpacked for condition-checking, we found that the poly vinyl chloride (PVC) outer sleeves were becoming slightly sticky and distorted. This was partly due to migration of the plasticiser, which is causing the stickiness and reduced flexibility of the material, and exacerbated by poor packaging which was putting stress on the corner of the sleeves. We were worried that the degradation of the PVC would only continue, causing further deformation and stickiness. In the future this could begin to disrupt the printed design, and cause problems with handling and access.

This initial assessment bought up a number of issues, among some already existing queries. We were unsure how this work should be displayed, and it was unclear how important it is for the records and mini-discs to be playable in the future. Additionally, there was a worry that separating the parts could cause issues with re-uniting them in the future.

Luckily, the artist was available to speak with us during installation and we were able to discuss how the piece was made, the concepts around the work, and how it should be displayed. Vaney made it clear that she liked the tactility of the vinyl records, and the idea of visitors handling them whilst listening to the audio. She wasn’t so keen on them being displayed in a vitrine, but also assigned the final decision to the curator. In the end, the artist bought her own copies of the records, which were tethered to a table for display.

We were also able to discuss the degradation of the work, and the possibility of creating replicas came up: The artist was happy for us to get in touch with further questions around storage and replication. Unfortunately, a subsequent email including a questionnaire has gone unanswered, showing that face-to-face discussions can be much more engaging then email exchanges.

Interviewing artists as a conservation tool was something we both had little experience in, and it was great to learn from conservators with such knowledge around using this tool. We were first encouraged to work with questionnaires, enabling us to draw together our ideas into open questions that were written in an accessible way. This then readied us for meeting artists face-to-face, where it is important not to ask leading questions, and to give room for the artist to think and talk through their ideas.

​Left: Libby Ireland (right) applying wax to ‘River Form’ (1965) by Dame Barbara Hepworth with Sculpture Conservator Gates Sofer. Right: Libby Ireland (left) and Claire Taggart (right) consolidating ‘Sea Form (Porthmeor)’ (1958) by Dame Barbara Hepworth. (Photographs by Carla Flack © Tate 2018)


In May 2018, we were excited to spend a sunny week in St Ives, Cornwall, at the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden, the home and studio of the British sculptor Barbara Hepworth until her death in 1975. Every spring a team of conservators travels down to St Ives to perform annual maintenance of the artworks and Barbara Hepworth’s studio – which has recently undergone amazing conservation research and treatment. We were able to help with care of the outdoor sculptures, which are exposed to the harsh, fluctuating coastal environment all year round. The garden holds bronze and stone sculptures, while the conservatory displays patterns created from plaster and metal, from which bronze works were later cast.

The maintenance schedule includes condition checking all works and undertaking treatments where necessary. Bronze works were cleaned with a mild surfactant in water before application of wax if needed. Depending on the patination layer, areas of the bronze were either cold waxed to impart surface protection only, or hot waxed when saturation of the original rich patinas was desired.


Interning at Tate has been an excellent opportunity to immerse ourselves in all aspects of modern and contemporary art conservation. Alongside our placement, we enjoyed travelling together to attend workshops and conferences, which complemented our projects and the knowledge we gained from colleagues. It is with these new skills, experiences and contacts, that we make our way into the field of conservation, excited for the next step.


We would like to thank our tutors, Dr James Hales from UCL and Lauren Fair and Dr Joelle Wickens from WUDPAC, as well as Deborah Cane ACR, Sculpture and Installation Conservation Manager at Tate, for arranging our placements. Our thanks also go to the Sculpture and Installation Conservation team for their support, enthusiasm and guidance: particularly Carla Flack ACR, Rachel Robbins, Roger Murray and Gates Sofer ACR. We are also grateful to the Conservation Science team for their support during projects, and to all the artists and specialists we worked with along the way.

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Class of 2018 WUDPAC alumna Claire Taggart's work at Tate London is featured in ICON NEWS, The Magazine of the Institute of Conservation.

​Class of 2018 WUDPAC alumna Claire Taggart's work at Tate London is featured in ICON NEWS, The Magazine of the Institute of Conservation.

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