As an accredited book and archives conservator in private practice, I frequently receive requests for work opportunities from keen students from all over the world. I myself had benefited greatly from work placements and internships both during, and immediately following the completion of, my master’s degree and I am still in contact with the inspiring conservators who helped to form my critical thinking and transform my practical skills into those that serve me to this day. These formative experiences ensured that I realise just how crucial hands-on experience is for professional development in conservation.
Nearly five years after having established a private practice in 2011, however, I had yet to take on an official intern, mainly due to the time impact of training someone with an unknown skill level on client work that requires a high level of supervision. Working independently, providing services to various libraries, archives, museums and private collectors and learning to manage my time and client relationships had been, and continues to be, a very rewarding experience. But in 2016, when I was contacted by a fourth-year student at the Nicolaus Copernicus University Department of Paper and Leather Conservation in Torun, Poland, I suddenly found myself wondering whether I was finally at a place where I could offer to share those experiences.
Ewa Siemieniako, my prospective intern, wanted to come to the UK for two months during the summer. She had applied to the Erasmus Fund to support some of the costs of her internship, and among the conditions of her funding were that she was required to work full-time in the workshop and obtain adequate insurance provision, as outlined in the Erasmus training agreement. Should Ewa fulfil the requirements, then her time in London would count as credit towards her master’s degree. Her evident determination made her an appealing candidate for an internship: by negotiating with the Erasmus scheme, she had demonstrated a high level of motivation and organisational skills. She would also be personally responsible for finding accommodation and arranging travel both to and within the UK. Nonetheless, I would not be able to offer her a full-time placement over those summer months as I am a mother to two school-age children who would be on holiday at that time.
The evolution of the internship – making it work
One potential downfall of working privately is that your practice can be isolating. This can be countered, however, by attending regular training opportunities and sharing your experiences with others. As a frequent attendee of various Icon and Society of Bookbinders training events, I am in regular contact with many other professional conservators. One particularly experienced and eminent colleague is Clare Prince ACR, a fellow book conservator in private practice in London who had once hosted an intern from the Netherlands, an experience she had found to be a very rewarding one. Whilst chatting to her at an Icon event, I mentioned Ewa’s request and floated the idea of sharing the supervision of the internship. This meant that I would be free to spend time with my children over their summer vacation while Ewa would benefit from learning from two conservators instead of just one. We were both excited at the possibility and tentatively agreed that I would host Ewa for three days per week and Clare for two. I would orchestrate the placement and administer it, but with the support of a much-valued colleague.
Managing expectations – the internship agreement
Earlier in my career, whilst working at the British Library, I had gained a Level 3 National Vocational Qualification in Learning and Development. I had supervised several interns as part of the library’s structured internship programs, and had learned that one of the keys to establishing a successful internship was managing the expectations of both the host and the intern. Because Clare and I wanted to offer Ewa a well-defined training programme to benefit all three of us, we held a series of Skype calls with Ewa to introduce ourselves and discuss how we wanted to organise her time in London. In order to define her learning outcomes and set her expectations, I produced a Learning Agreement covering the various skills that she would develop during her internship. This underpinned her learning, and included documentation of treatments, the creation of collation diagrams and sewing analysis charts, the production of a model flexible-style binding, studio visits, mechanical dry cleaning, paper repair, washing and resizing, and the toning and rebacking of a textile binding. She therefore had two projects, the model binding and the reback, that she could work on with a good level of autonomy when her hosts’ attentions were required elsewhere.
Prior to Ewa’s arrival, both Clare and I visited one another’s workshops and discussed the projects that we would be working on at the time of the internship, and how much input Ewa could have. Keen to expose her to the broader context of the UK conservation profession, we arranged studio visits around the south of England to other private practices and major institutions including the Sussex Consortium, West Dean College, the Houses of Parliament, the British Library, the Fitzwilliam Museum and Cambridge University Library, and I set up a spreadsheet detailing the dates and times of the visits.
Although we knew Ewa had bookbinding experience, it was only after her arrival that we were in a position to assess her proficiency. This turned out to be an area on which she required more supervision, but she worked hard to develop her leather skills and she learned to use the book plough and various paring knives for the first time whilst on her placement. In addition to developing the other skills covered in the Learning Agreement, as part of our day-to-day project work Ewa accompanied us on several professional meetings with clients to plan, deliver and collect work.
Feedback and evaluation
At the mid-point of Ewa’s time with us, we reviewed the Learning Agreement to make sure that we were covering the necessary skills and could complete the various strands in good time. Clare and I also had regular telephone meetings to make sure that everything was going well. It was this open and frank communication that ensured the success of our joint agreement. At the end of the two months, we gave Ewa feedback on her time with us and she provided us both with assessments of the organisation and content of her placement. On her last day, we met to celebrate her time and achievements with us, which was particularly enjoyable. One added benefit of the joint internship was that Clare and I have now become very good friends.
Overall, Ewa’s internship was a real success. Personally, I found it incredibly useful to reinforce my own skills by teaching and explaining them to an eager recipient. I had to reacquaint myself with my previous research and professional literature, and it was mentally stimulating to work so closely with another colleague.
In terms of Ewa’s learning, here is an excerpt from her feedback:
“…visiting institutions gave me information about taking care of heritage In UK [sic] and actual research on conservation issues, because of visiting private clients I could understand the differences between working for an institution and being self-employed, I was given examples of professional approaches and proper contact between client and employer. I met many wonderful conservators with broad experiences. I was also encouraged to organise individual visits to museums and other cultural institutions.”
At the end of the internship, Ewa and I were required to complete paperwork to validate her learning for the Erasmus funding. This included an outline of the Learning Agreement and a reference for Ewa for the time that she had spent with us. I am pleased to report that she successfully attained credit towards her Master’s degree.
Ewa, Clare and I hope that by outlining our experiences here, we can encourage other conservators in private practice to open their doors to both interns and each other. We would like to express our gratitude to the staff of the Sussex Consortium, West Dean College, the Houses of Parliament, the British Library, the Fitzwilliam Museum and Cambridge University Library for allowing Ewa to visit their studios and broaden her professional perspective.
On a personal note, I would also like to thank the late Fred Bearman, Elizabeth Neville, Chris Damp, Mark Winstanley, Heather Hedley-Edwards, Seren Fisher and the countless other conservators and binders who helped to inspire me at the outset of my own career.
Ann-Marie Miller ACR
(with Clare Prince ACR)
Ann-Marie Miller ACR is an accredited book and archives conservator based in London. She works for a broad range of institutional clients and private collectors, from national museums to corporate archives. Previously, she worked for seven years at the British Library, achieving accredited status in 2007. She earned a post-graduate diploma and a master’s degree in conservation at Camberwell College of Arts, after studying the History of Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art.