Meet the conservator- Suzanne Chee

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Photography © Powerhouse Museum, all rights reserved.

Name: Suzanne Chee

How long have you been at the Museum for? I just had to do some mental arithmetic! I have been working at the Powerhouse Museum for 26 years!

What is your role at the Museum? I am a conservator mostly working in the area of costumes, dress and textiles.

What is your educational/work experience background? Ever since I can remember, I have always wanted to study in the Arts field. After high school, I went to the University of Sydney where I completed an Arts degree majoring in art history and languages hoping to become a curator in an art gallery. This direction took a slight turn because I became fascinated with art conservation. Moving into conservation was not an automatic progression. I lacked chemistry knowledge and had no work experience in the field. After my degree, I started working as a volunteer in the conservation department of the Powerhouse Museum while I was studying chemistry at night. After several years working as a conservation assistant at the Museum, I won a scholarship that took me to New York where I studied for a Masters of Arts in Museum Studies. Working as an intern was part of the degree requirements and I was fortunate to have worked at the Costume Institute at the Met.

Is there a difference between a conservator and a restorer? Conservators strive to slow down the deterioration of our cultural materials. We do this by controlling the environment it lives in, good storage, appropriate display supports and retaining as much of the original as possible to preserve its cultural integrity. In contrast, a restorer would removed deteriorated elements of the object and replace it with a newly made part.

Can you describe the processes involved in conserving an object from the moment it comes to the lab to final treatment? When an object comes into the lab for treatment, we must fully document the condition before any work can be performed. Many detailed images are taken. Once the images are printed onto A4 sheets, we annotate the images with notes and lines indicating its condition. The type of treatment we tend to do is more about stabilisation than anything radical. For example, if a Victorian garment made of fine silk has fragile or deteriorated underarms, we dye our own silks to match the colour of the original and use that fabric to support the weakened areas. Using size 12 needles, we sew with fine silk monofilament threads. This treatment may take weeks to complete. It is also my role as a conservator to dress the garment onto an appropriate mannequin for display. Making the right underpinnings for the garment is an important aspect as well, to give the correct silhouette of the time.

Are there any potential health hazards working as a Museum conservator? Yes, as a science and technology Museum we have many objects made in the past with components fabricated from what we now know as hazardous materials. To name a few, asbestos has been found in many areas of our collection including clothes, lead in toys and paint, arsenic, uranium in ceramic glazes, vaccines with small pox and anthrax.

What advice would you give to someone looking to start a career in Museum conservation? All conservation departments in public institutions are happy to talk to people keen on pursuing a career in conservation. It often involves a tour of the facilities, a chat and a cup of tea. It’s generally more difficult to volunteer on a regular basis these days but we tend to help tertiary students with their internship component of their course. There are only two institutions in Australia where one can study conservation. The University of Canberra offers an undergraduate degree in cultural heritage and conservation while the University of Melbourne offers a Masters of Cultural Materials Conservation.

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