The art of preservation: Why I love my job

Val Tomlinson is an art conservator at Auckland War Memorial Museum.

“I think this is my fourth or fifth career. Most people don’t even know an art conservator exists as a profession. I definitely didn’t. But to explore how I got here, I need to go way back to the beginning.

I was born in a town of nuclear researchers in Manitoba on the Winnipeg River in Canada. I grew up in a very 1960s science fiction, space age kind of world, you could say.

In that environment, you had to go to university because that’s what everyone did. Even though a lot of the women were still in the home during that time, some of them were practising nuclear scientists. I started off in physics and that was too hard, so I moved to chemistry.

Then I realised right away I didn’t want to be a chemist, but I had no idea what I wanted, so I figured I had to stick with it. But oh, how I loved art!

Off I went to fine arts school. But I realised it wasn’t the career for me – artists starve and the ones who are successful run businesses and I’m the antithesis of business.

So for a summer job, I went back to the university where I studied chemistry. And just for fun, I took a kung fu class, which I absolutely loved. I tried to find a way to stay at this university. Some of my friends said, ‘You love art, you love chemistry, why not be an art conservator?’ I realised this is what I had been looking for.

After graduating, I worked at Parks Canada working with a lot of archaeological material. I would work with metals across the national historic sites and with big bronze statues.

You might remember an elderly lady in Spain who painted over a 19th-century Spanish fresco? Fortunately, that’s what an art conservator can fix. You strip back the new layers to get to the original layers. Art conservators do spend time fixing up a lot of damage.

When a lot of contract work in the area dried up, I took a job in Norway, but I was horrifically lonesome. I missed all of my friends. After one year, I quit and went back to Canada where I would find the odd contract to be a conservator and trained as a cabinet-maker.

One day, my brother, who had lived in the Arctic for years, phoned me up asking if I wanted to be a librarian in a research institute up there. I was one rent payment away from being homeless, so I said, ‘Well, why not? Sure!’

I absolutely loved the Arctic. It’s a place of characters. I loved the climate. You get nice, beautiful winters with crisp sparkling snow. It’s desert dry, there’s no water anywhere. In my backyard, I could go skiing, go on camping trips with my brother – you go with a big snowmobile with a sled with a mound of gear. Although you have to watch out for snow banks with noses – meaning polar bears. Because when they hunt, they hide their noses!

A museum nearby in Yellowknife also used to send me work, such as a prehistoric extinct species of bison that had appeared out of the permafrost. The whole thing had been mummified and was 12,000 years old.

But then I saw this job at Auckland Museum online, applied, and I’ve now been here going on eight years.

Anything and everything comes across my desk, you could be working on a zillion things. We get ethnographic stuff, carvings, Pacific fishing lures and even Edmund Hillary’s boots have walked across my desk! Right now I’m working on a big trunk from a nurse in World War II.

It’s not good to feel time pressure when you’re doing conservation because you don’t want to mess anything up.

This is definitely a female-dominated profession. Maybe that’s because it’s all about attention to detail and it’s a caring profession, I’m not sure.

In the future, I would really like to do some more archaeological digs. The more money and funding that becomes available, the more digs I can go on. There are all sorts of stuff that could be discovered yet out there in the world.

It’s the learning and intellectual stimulation that does it for me. Every object is something new and different that you’ve never met before – it has its own story. The museum is just such an interesting place for work!”

My favourite food to eat is…

Wild blueberries you pick yourself and chocolate. Who doesn’t love chocolate?

Best piece of advice I’ve been given…

Pack your own chute. It’s nice if other people help you out, but be prepared to do it yourself.

My favourite movie…

The 1985 fantasy drama Brazil.

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