Who are you and what do you do?
I am a freelance book and paper conservator based in Malta. I consult for libraries and archives as well as for private collectors, and I am a visiting lecturer on conservation and preservation at the University of Malta and other institutions abroad. I also collaborate with the University of Graz in Austria on organising its ‘Hidden Libraries’ summer schools and on other projects related to manuscript studies and codicology. My areas of interest are French illuminated manuscripts, recycled bindings, codicology, bookbinding terminology and conservation education.
Describe your current project.
I am contracted for three years as a conservation consultant on an EU-funded project to rehabilitate the Notarial Archives in Valletta, Malta. The archive has a rich collection of manuscripts containing notarial deeds that date back to the fifteenth century. Most of the bindings have parchment and cartonnage covers. The work involves designing a new depository for the archive’s 2 km of manuscripts, a conservation laboratory and a small museum that will display objects from the collection. All this is done with a team of architects, engineers, designers and historians. I am also responsible for the disinfestation of the entire collection and for supervising conservation treatment on 600 manuscripts. It is a huge learning experience for me, as I am now in a direct decision-making position and, on this project at least, moving away from bench work. Alongside this, I am heading the ‘Adopt a Notary’ scheme run by the Notarial Archives Foundation. This involves attracting private sponsors to support the scheme, which includes a great deal of PR work.
Tell us about your most memorable project, for better or for worse.
Carrying out research for my PhD. I worked on ten oversized sixteenth-century French choir books. They are very beautifully illuminated and, with all of the layers of history they contain, like an archaeological site. I learnt a great deal by observing all of their codicological details, and I was privileged in this work to have Nicholas Pickwoad as my supervisor. The fun part was collecting data; the tough part was filtering through all of the research material and writing up my thesis in just eight months.
Who’s coming to dinner (three, living or dead) and what would be on the menu?
Grand Master L’Isle Adam (the man who, in 1533, commissioned the choir books I studied for my PhD); C.S. Lewis and Roberto Benigni. Risotto with asparagus and pancetta – one of my favourite dishes and one which I can cook well. It can’t be a flop for these guests.
If not conservation/preservation, what?
Gardening. I love flowers.
What is your favourite museum, library or archive and why?
The Biblioteca Malatestiana in Cesena, Italy. It is the oldest public library in the world, dating back to 1454. What is impressive is the way in which the books are still chained to the benches and that the library has not changed much for all of these centuries. The place is simply magical.
Bone or Teflon?
Always Teflon, except when making creases for folders and boxes.
How do you preserve/conserve yourself?
I enjoy going to cultural events, especially music performances. Occasionally I go tango dancing, which I find very relaxing.
When you tell people what you do for a living they…
Normally don’t understand immediately. But after my second sentence, they think that being a conservator is a bit like being Indiana Jones! The general feeling is that of fascination, however.
Hands-down best course you have attended?
A two-week course in ‘Education and Communication in Conservation’ organised by ICCROM in Rome in 2014. It was attended by 16 international mid-career conservation professionals who mostly worked in conservation education and research. I was very impressed with the way the course was delivered and I shall not forget what I learnt from it. The participants also bonded very well and I am still in touch with several of the people I met there.
The gloves: on or off?
If you could give just one piece of advice to a new conservator, what would it be?
Read. Travel as much as you can to learn how others work. Learn a language every decade of your life.
What are your hopes and fears for the future of conservation?
My hope is to have more people in senior positions who are able to listen and be led by what conservators have to say about preserving collections. Unfortunately, decisions are often made by senior staff who are not technically knowledgeable.
My fear is that conservation education will become more and more piecemeal. We need to have proper full-time three-year courses (plus an additional two years for an MA) that include all related disciplines to produce well-formed conservators. We rely too much on internships and placements, but this should be supplementary rather than fundamental.