Personal Journey in Conservation



It is hard to believe that it has been 14 years since I started practicing conservation and it has been an amazing journey that has taken me to places I never dreamt of. I occasionally get asked about how I came into the field and advice on how to pursue conservation as a profession so I just wanted to share my story here in case you were interested as well!

My personal advice to you is:

  1. Find an undergraduate school that fits your personality. For me it was a smaller school with high-level mentors.
  2. If you are remotely interested in pursuing archaeology as a career, attend a field school where you can see what it is really about and discover the different specialties. If you are in high school or between school contact the local university that has archaeologists on faculty or staff or look online at the local and national professional societies or clubs. Try to volunteer or participant in each aspect of the process so you have an understanding of the operations.
  3. While you are getting your undergraduate look for every opportunity to participate in travel or extra-curricular activities, even if you have to volunteer.
  4. Look through your university funding resources or talk to faculty or scholarship staff about what grants you could apply for (big or small!). There is usually funding through clubs and through the university available for travel to conferences or other professional development.
  5. Seek out mentors or organizations that you admire and whose work you emulate.
  6. I can’t stress attending professional events enough!!! All of your admired professionals will be there talking about their latest research. Use that to your advantage having them all in one place!
  7. Have a CV!!! Even if it is just a basic one. Try to only highlight those roles which gave you direct skills associated with the field.
  8. Always have a printed copy of your CV or resume to hand to someone at professional events and follow it up with an email version. I know everything is electronic these days, but you have that person attention in the moment so use it to your fullest.
  9. Have a quick summary prepared that describes who you are, what your experience is and what you want from that person (concrete and clear). For example: ‘My name is Susanne; I have experience working in a conservation lab during my undergraduate degree and excavating on shipwreck sites and I would really love the opportunity to develop myself further by working with you. I am looking for a 6-month internship. Is there anything available that we could work together?’
  10. Most internships will come to an end. Don’t feel like it will all be over, see it as an opportunity to move onto something new and to learn a new skill set in a different environment.
  11. Find a graduate program that meets your needs. Think about what you want out of getting a degree there. Are they going to offer what you want? Would you meet their prerequisites? See my blog entry on Interested in Becoming a Conservator? to get some more tips!
  12. Check and double check the prerequisites that are required for the program. Many applicants will have the basics and then some. Absolutely reach out to the program coordinators to find out what you would need to even be considered for the program. It will vary school to school. In addition, ask what experience the average applicants have and the above average. Keep in mind that most conservation programs will require entry level chemistry courses now a days. If so, get these done while you are in your undergraduate. They may be more difficult to find and finish after you are out of school.
  13. Consider your colleagues to also be mentors, especially if you are just starting out.
  14. When you aren’t sure about a topic or method explain it to someone else (a fellow student or colleague, a parent, friend or partner).
  15. You won’t be considered unless you apply for something. If you see a position or opportunity that you feel would be a good fit for you, apply for it! I know it takes time and effort to do this, but if it is a position that really suites you, it is worth it. To get advertisements, consider setting up an automatic service that feeds you jobs from websites such as Feedly or sign up for newsletters or list servs from professional organizations.
  16. Allow your interests to change. Conservation is a very broad field and will take you places you never imagined.

Read on to find out why…

Undergraduate Degree

I always knew I wanted to be an archaeologist from when I was 8 years old. I grew up on a historic farm (lifestyle block in Kiwi terms) and my mother would give tours in costume and I would pick around the property pretending to scale mountains and explore valleys and ‘cricks’. We eventually moved to Florida where I started studying archaeology at University of Central Florida. I had no clue that different universities specialise in different areas of archaeology. I thought I could choose the closest school (to save money) and learn everything I would need to know. This is true to some extent. Every anthropology/archaeology program will give you a basic foundation of knowledge in the field which is enough for you to further specialize in a masters program, but the academic world is becoming competitive and it can be important for you to identify a program that is in line with your interests and career goals even at an undergraduate level. I had to go to a Florida school because of the Florida Prepaid Program that my mother had started for me when I was younger. Needless to say, UCF specialized in South American archaeology which I found interesting, but wasn’t really my passion. The class sizes were huge and while my professors were great, I was lost in sea of other undergraduates in an ‘Intro to Anthropology’ class. Eventually, I found the RIGHT program for me in the University of West Florida. The smaller class sizes and personalized attention from the professors were an environment I flourished in. I was only able to have the opportunities I have now and did back then because I had good mentors who fostered my interests and gave me freedom to explore. This isn’t the key to everybodies success. I was driven, focused independent and passionate. If you feel that this is you too, then find a program that will provide those opportunities for you as well. Having a good mentor is critical! I started at UWF with a summer field school in underwater archaeology and I didn’t leave until I graduated. That summer I realised my true interests and passion professionally. After the summer excavation season ended, I worked in the lab as an assistant learning conservation techniques and curation skills. I realized that I loved the conservation, organization and interpretation of the finds. I loved helping to tell the story of the object and the site. I was lucky that UWF offered excellent lab methods courses in which I could learn more about the materials themselves as well. I also attended a field school in Australia and was able to get those credits counted towards my degree. I didn’t see myself staying in Florida forever, but I did get the skills to give me a basic foundation in which to build upon. Even though UWF didn’t have a dedicated conservation program, it gave me the experience I needed to get my foot in the door. While I was getting my bachelor degree, I tried to take advantage of every activity I could because I knew that I could get grants and loans while studying but it would be a lot harder after I graduated.

‘Gap Year’

A ‘gap year’ is a term commonly used in the UK, Australia and New Zealand to describe an in between time where you aren’t in school, but are heading towards going onto a higher degree. While I was doing my undergraduate degree at UWF, I attended a professional conference in Washington, DC, with a small grant that paid for travel through the university. I slept in a friend of a friends basement and had to travel a long way each day to get to the meeting, but it paid off. I looked through all of the sessions of papers and highlighted the talks that interested me or that were given by people or organizations I wanted to work with. I sought out my mentor! After the session I would approach the speaker and introduce myself and leave them a copy of my resume. Make it easy for someone to reach you and to clearly see what your interests are and to discern what you want from them. This is best done if you are about to finish school. Some organizations may be reluctant if they know you have other obligations. This experience led me to an internship with the H.L. Hunley project in South Carolina. It was an incredible experience working with a high-level international team of professionals using the latest technologies. What a foundation to start with!! Even if I didn’t have these resources later in life, I would be aware of what they were and how they operated.

I should note that at this time, it was just on the cusp of not needing a graduate degree in conservation to still succeed, but it was definitely changing. I wanted to stay with the project longer, but I needed a masters degree to compete with other applicants. All good things must come to an end and while I felt like it was a dream job, it was important to continue to develop this early in my career.

Graduate Degree

So, I knew that I needed a masters degree to be able to have a good job in conservation. I had some great experience in my undergraduate and a really fantastic internship under my belt. I started thinking about where I wanted to study for a masters degree. I really wanted to study somewhere where there was a long history of conservation and that was a respected program. I didn’t feel that the US programs were a good fit for me for various reasons. I was also very focused on archaeological conservation and looked for programs that specialized in that area rather than the other specialities. I chose to focus my efforts on the University College London. The founding mothers and fathers of conservation. I applied for numerous grants and scholarships, but was unsuccessful. I didn’t let that discourage me because I knew that even if I had to pay for tuition, I would get a degree from a respectable and recognized institution with a high quality of teaching. Unfortunately, I had to take out student loans from the US to study at UCL, but it  allowed me to get a master of arts in one year with the possible option to continue on to a higher level degree afterwards. Because I didn’t have a lot of financial support, I worked while I studied. This was very hard. I couldn’t participate in the same after class activities and I couldn’t be as engaged as others with the group. Others would always be at the school surrounded by conversations and people with the same interests, but I had to spend my extra time at work.

After my coursework, I had to produce a thesis. I chose to pursue a topic that was in my area of interest related to waterlogged archaeological materials. While I can’t remember the exact order of events, I believe The Mariners’ Museum had an internship advertised and I thought it was a great opportunity to pursue research on the collection. I was very interested in the conservation of the rubber gaskets from the USS Monitor and completed my thesis on that topic. It was difficult doing this away from UCL, but overall my teachers worked with me and it allowed me to reduce my living costs by being back in the states. All in all, getting a master degree at UCL was difficult for me, but highly developmental in helping me find my own identity as a young person being in a foreign country and gave me the skills I needed to succeed and move forward.

I still highly recommend UCL as a graduate school for conservation. However, the program has changed since I graduated in 2005 and you would be better contacting a more recent graduate for current impressions. It still remains one of the most widely respected (and accessible?) programs within the discipline. If you are still looking for graduate programs and want to be a professional conservator, you really need to find a school that has a ‘recognized conservation degree’. Schools in the US can be found on the AIC website. Other major schools outside of the US can be found by looking at international professional conservation organizations or those that are country specific. Each program is different, and you need to evaluate the classes and outcomes that are best for you. Try to contact recent graduates for more details.

Post-Graduate Life

After I had finished my masters, I started a permanent role at The Mariners’ Museum and gradually gained experiences that allowed me to progress and specialize. Working in institutions and museums gave me stability while I was young and experiencing life in general. During my time there I also joined the Antarctica Heritage Trust for the first time completing conservation on the historic expedition bases on Ross Island. People always ask me how I got that opportunity and it is only because I applied for it! This experience changed my life completely and thoroughly! Though the position at The Mariners’ Museum I met many professionals that all taught me something and had many colleagues that were also very important mentors for me. One of our advisors mentioned they would have a teaching position open up at East Carolina University and I was very fortunate to have been successful in getting that position. My time at ECU has represented a different phase in my life in which I was transitioning from learning from mentors to becoming a mentor for others. Teaching conservation was humbling and allowed me to share my experiences with others and expose them to new things while also showing me where I could improve as a professional. This academic environment introduced me to a whole different level of the professional field and allowed me to work more closely with allied professionals rather than fellow conservators. I also joined the Antarctic Heritage Trust for a second season which challenged me as an American, as a professional, as a woman and as a person. It was absolutely instrumental in the formation of who I am today and it allowed me to meet my partner, Jeff.

Unfortunately, my position was not permanent with ECU and while we had some really fantastic projects and made a lot of progress, I was unable to continue and decided to continue practicing conservation as a private conservator. Being a small business presents its own challenges and warrants a separate blog entry! We now have a practice in the United States and in New Zealand where we work with private individuals and public organizations on a variety of projects.

Lastly, the benefit of continuing education cannot be ignored. I have started a doctorate program in New Zealand in Museum and Heritage Studies which has allowed me to reevaluate my role as a conservator within a broader context. I had always wanted to do doctoral research and I have been fortunate enough to continue to have good mentors in my new pursuits and I hope to give others the opportunities that I was given!


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