Rachael Garrett, Preventive Conservation Intern
What does an internship in preventative conservation look like? We heard from Rachael Garrett who was employed through the Northern Ireland Creative Employment with the National Trust.
I live in Coleraine, on the North Coast of Northern Ireland.
What job do you do?
I am currently Preventive Conservation Intern for the National Trust in Northern Ireland.
How did you get started?
Ever since I was 15, I have known that I would like to pursue a career in the Museums and Heritage Sector. I had always found history and historical artefacts interesting but my passion was truly piqued by visiting museums such as the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia, The Smithsonian in Washington D.C. and The Ulster Museum, Belfast.
Viewing these rich and varied collections was both thrilling and enthralling and I envied those who got to work closely with the museum objects. At first working in a museum seemed unattainable and far-fetched, it did not seem to be a likely career prospect for someone from my background.
Nevertheless, I decided to volunteer with various local heritage projects and museums to see what working with collections would really be like. These experiences were pivotal; they provided brilliant work experience but also solidified my determination to pursue my current career.
What qualifications do you have?
I completed 10 GCSEs and 3 A-Levels in various subjects, including History and History of Art. I then chose to pursue a History BA at Queens University Belfast. After graduating from this degree in 2014, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to study a Master of Studies (MA) in History of Art from The University of Oxford.
What do you do for your internship?
Working in a museum seemed unattainable and far-fetched, it did not seem to be a likely career prospect for someone from my background.
I currently have an incredibly rich and varied role. I work closely with the Regional Conservator for National Trust NI, Claire Magill, accompanying her to various National Trust properties around the region. Most commonly, I am required to participate in and learn about both preventive and remedial conservation practices. For example, one day I may be asked to assist with recording the condition of collection objects or with implementing environmental controls and the next day may be spent moving or cleaning large items of furniture, paintings, textiles and more.
Meanwhile, I often have the chance to gain experience and training in different administrative procedures inside the Trust. This has allowed me to get a sense of the day to day demands of managing and caring for substantial museum collections and to gain experience in an area with which I was previously unfamiliar. I am also routinely given the opportunity to attend various training courses on different aspects of collections management and preventive conservation.
What's the best thing about your internship/job?
The best thing about my internship is the fact that no two days are the same. I have the chance to work in so many different properties, with so many different collections and with so many different people that every day is bound to be different. This variety is so valuable for personal development and learning and dealing with so many new situations has given me more confidence in professional environments. I am also much more confident in interacting with museum objects and thinking about their care.
I feel very lucky to get the opportunity to learn so much in such a short space of time, not to mention the fact that I get to visit some of the most beautiful places in Northern Ireland on a regular basis!
What's the worst thing about your work?
As my job takes me to a lot of different places there is a lot of driving involved. Long drives and early starts can be tiring but the positives definitely outweigh the negatives. I have seen more of my own country in the last six months than ever before, an unexpected plus!
How do you get into conservation?
Jobs in the Conservation and Heritage/Museum sectors can be very difficult to come by, especially in recent times, and there is an awful lot of competition. It is no longer enough to simply get a degree in a relevant subject, practical experience and expertise is what’s needed to set a candidate apart. Therefore, going out of your way to contact local museums and institutions who participate in conservation is an absolute must.
Thankfully, many such institutions are often glad to take on and train new volunteers. Importantly, this also allows you to find out what area of conservation or collections care interests you the most and if you might wish to specialise, while providing numerous opportunities for personal development and networking.
Consistently seek out opportunities and contacts
Always be on the lookout for different opportunities. Informal chats and inquiries may lead to volunteering roles or useful guidance, while long internet searches can throw up unusual job roles or previously unseen opportunities. Just persevere and be consistent in the search, an opportunity will always come up and make sure to take it if you can!
Studying a relevant degree at University is still an important step in establishing a career in conservation or related disciplines. Bachelors and Masters degrees in History, History of Art, Conservation, Archaeology and more can all be used as a stepping stone to conservation or heritage jobs. However, if you wish to become an accredited conservator then further qualifications and assessments will be necessary. It is important to do thorough research before deciding which path you would like to take.