What's My Story: Object Conservator

Jennifer French has been the Object Conservator at the North Carolina Museum of History since 2010. Over her 13-year career, she has worked on two continents and with objects that span vast time scales. Before unfurling her tool kit in Raleigh, she worked to stabilize objects from the Bronze Age in Wiltshire England, to repairing feathers and reattaching beads on Native American objects for the Smithsonian, to securing the ephemeral messages and photos taped to the Last Column from the rubble of 9/11.

Jennifer FrenchQ: When did you discover that you like history?
A: Can you be born loving history? To be honest, I am an Indiana Jones fan. One of the few AP courses I took in high school was U.S. History. I was fascinated to be able to discuss the various facets and interpretations of history in that class. It wasn’t taught cut and dry, with facts in a simple natural progression. We read differing opinions. We read fiction that incorporated the struggles and issues of historical periods, such as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. I liked to debate and discuss history. That’s what fascinated me. My father gave me a book on the Egyptian collections at the British Museum. In the back of that book, there was a 10-page blurb about the conservation of those Egyptian artifacts and it was almost like a light switch had flipped. As a museum conservator, I realized, not only are you allowed to touch the objects, which I really wanted to do, but you got to be an investigator--determining how were they constructed, how they were fabricated? Were they real? Or were they fake? You are not just seeing what’s on the surface; you are looking for what’s underneath. Who made it? What do the tool marks tell you about the tools used? By looking at the layers of history on an object, we can ask about the people who made it, the people who used it, and the people who stopped using it.

Q: What did you study in college?
A: I was really a fan of ancient history so I studied archaeology and anthropology in college. I was interested in the material culture of history--what the physical objects could tell us about various peoples and the times that they lived in. I studied art history to understand the social context of the objects. What values did the artist or the patron infuse into the object? What was the social purpose?  Was there a message, opinion, or propaganda that the object was designed to convey? Was the artifact an object of devotion? I also took art classes so that I would understand the process of making art. You have to be able to recognize the trends in materials, material technology and subject matter to assist you in dating the object and identify what is original and what is from a later period in the history of the object. When I began to focus on object conservation, I decided to minor in chemistry so I could understand the materials and processes of decay and repair. A subset of my profession does conservation science. They research the science behind the creation and deterioration of both objects and the materials in order to help object conservators do their jobs. So I tailored my bachelor’s degree to provide me with all the skills and knowledge an object conservator would need. Then I went straight from a bachelor’s to a Masters degree in conservation of historical and archaeological objects. I was in a groove and decided to go straight through. 

Q: Once you graduated from college, where did your career take you?
A: During the last year of my Masters degree, I was an intern at Wiltshire Council History Centre in Salisbury UK, near the grounds of Stonehenge. I worked on both historical and archaeological objects. I worked on both historical and archaeological objects. Most notably, I worked on a large Bronze Age ceramic urn that had been previously treated and needed to have those old repairs replaced with gentler, more modern ones. My first real job was working for the Smithsonian, getting the Native American artifacts housed in New York ready for the move to new National Museum of the American Indian in D.C. I had to remove approximately 70 years worth of dust, debris, pesticides, and insect debris from the objects. I had to stabilize any objects that were too fragile for travel--securing loose beads, repairing broken feathers, and cementing broken ceramics. My second job was for the Port Authority stabilizing the last piece of debris to come out of the pit at the World Trade Center after 9/11 for the 9/11 Memorial Museum. This object came to be called the Last Column. It is covered in the “graffiti of remembrance” and became a totem of the recovery. People from the rescue and recovery teams wrote messages in spray paint, ink and pencil and fastened pictures to it with duct tape or wire. Conservators had to secure the objects people added, remove as much rust as we could and lay down the lifting paint layers. We ended up using magnets to conserve the movable flat pieces. For my third job, I spent two years at the Cleveland Museum of Art examining and treating their 18th French Decorative Art and Furniture collection.

Q: What do you like about your job today?
A: At the NC Museum of History, I tend to work on objects from many time periods in the same day! I can treat Revolutionary War firearms in the morning and then examine political pamphlets and paraphernalia from the Watergate era after lunch and figure out the best and safest way to frame a 19th century document in the afternoon. There is also a constant need to research and keep abreast of the latest conservation research as it can helpful with a particular conservation treatment or assist me in identifying the materials used to create an artifact or the materials used to previous treat an object. So I tend to do a lot of research and testing of materials and treatments throughout the treatment process in order to determine the appropriate treatment to undertake.

Q: What makes a career in Objects Conservation satisfying?
What is meaningful to me about objects conservation is that I get to help people see what was interesting to me about the artifact or about the period of history that the object represents. We stabilize the object to allow people to be able to appreciate it, to enjoy it, to learn from it. I like that aspect of the field of conservation.

Q: What are some unusual parts of your job today?

A: In addition to working with the Museum’s collection, I get to work the 28 Historic Landmarks in North Carolina. Historic houses have no air conditioning, no HVAC system so we have to work harder to maintain those objects in those environments. So I get to travel to these sites all over the state and discuss with the managers how best to stabilize their walls and furniture.

Q: What makes a career in Conservation Science satisfying?
A: What is meaningful to me about conservation science is that I get to help people see what was interesting to me. We stabilize the object to allow people to be able to appreciate it, to enjoy it, to learn from it. I like that aspect of the field of conservation.

- By Lucy Laffitte

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