An Insightful Journey of Icon's Student Mentorship Programme
Icon's Student Mentor Programme is offering 25 students or recent graduates the chance for 1-to-1 support from an experienced Icon conservator. Mentor Zoë Miller and mentee Hayley Livingstone, who were paired in 2021, discuss their experience.
The Conservation profession has relied on collaboration between higher education institutions, places of work, and Icon to support students and new graduates to gain the skills and experience needed to enter the world of work.
We expect them to be ready to face the challenges of both the ethical and practical approaches to heritage collections as well as offer the soft skills of communication, influencing, decision-making, presentation, time management and even leadership to thrive in either private practice or a large institution.
We also want them to present confidently themselves in an interview with an innovative and extensive portfolio of work experience. No small ask!
A combination of the global pandemic, ever-reducing resources in higher education and general underfunding in the heritage sector has meant that students of conservation may have had compromised learning and would benefit from the support and guidance of someone who has navigated these things and others more than ever.
Hayley Livingstone and Zoë Miller were partnered through Icon’s first student mentoring programme in 2021. Over the year that followed, they had monthly zoom conversations in which they learned a great deal about each other's experiences - in this case, working as a Conservation Team Leader at the British Library and as a student on the Conservation of Fine Art- Paintings course at Northumbria University.
Below, they introduce themselves and share some of the valuable discoveries they have made about each other's lived realities and some of the intricacies and challenges of being a conservator at different phases in their careers, at different ends of the UK.
I decided to study conservation a few years after completing a Fine Art and Art History degree at Kingston University. I had been working in various jobs and volunteering with museums. This voluntary experience allowed me to have a go at collections care, art handling and front of house roles.
Through this process I first heard about conservation, and through my own research I decided I would be well suited to it because I enjoyed working with my hands and I had always been equally interested in the sciences and art during school.
I began the Masters course in Conservation of Fine Art at Northumbria University in 2020, without having any real conservation experience.
I chose the Easel Painting pathway as I felt that I already had a good understanding of paintings due to my own experience as a painter, and my interest in certain facets of art history.
I found the first year of the masters course very challenging due to the restrictions caused by the pandemic, with much of the material delivered to us in online lectures, alongside home-working kits for us to practise the practical skills. By the second year there was much improvement and I was able to graduate with a distinction in 2022.
I was very lucky to be offered a job at the Fine Art Restoration Company before I had finished my master’s programme, having worked there as an intern during the previous summer. My experience at FARCo was fantastic, as I gained huge amounts of practical experience and improved my decision making and general confidence.
After graduating from the Master’s Degree course in Books and Paper at Camberwell in 2003, I spent a summer as an intern at the Museum of Natural History in New York. From my student room on the Upper West Side, I applied for a job as a book conservator at the British Library- based then at the British Museum Bindery- and have worked there ever since… a brilliant but rather surprising 20 years!
I now manage a team of inspiring and hardworking conservators working across the BL’s vast collection of multi-cultural heritage including books, manuscripts, maps, scrolls, visual art, music, archives and much more. I have been a mentor for Icon Pathway members working towards their Icon Accreditation and for many interns over the years, who I have seen grow into maturity in the profession and have worked in developing various training initiatives at the BL over the years as the profession and its support for educating the next generation has evolved.
During my first year at Northumbria I applied to join the Icon mentorship programme. The process of applying was quick and easy, and I was very pleased to be accepted.
I had my first meeting with Zoe in September 2021, and throughout the year we met over zoom for an hour long chat. I also journeyed down to London to meet her in person at the British Library conservation studios. Now that the official mentorship has ended, we continue to meet every few months to catch up.
Zoë and I are from different specialisms of conservation, and although we do talk about our current projects, and the materials and techniques we use, our rich and valuable discussions mainly focus on issues and skills which are relevant to conservators from all specialisms.
We often speak about my professional development and career goals, and how to achieve them. We also discuss the ever-present issue of low salaries and lack of work in the sector. We both felt comfortable enough to share details about our personal lives with each other.
This mutual understanding strengthened our mentor/mentee relationship, and has really helped me to navigate what the world of conservation is really like.
Although I have been aware of the Paintings course at Northumbria for many years, it was great to understand more about what students learn and why. It was especially interesting to hear about colour matching exams and in-painting techniques!
The principles and skills of these sit alongside much of what we do as paper conservators but the ethics are quite different.
I also learned so much from Hayley about conserving work by living artists and how artistic intention interacts with conservation decision-making.
Having navigated working part-time in different roles (with different work patterns) alongside having children, I could share with Hayley the ways this has affected my earning potential and aspirations, but also improved my mentoring and training skills and gained useful skills like negotiating, influencing, coaching - a gift of parenting!
Gaining Accreditation with very young children in tow and entering conservation leadership after years at the bench have been challenges, as well as nurturing and investing time on specialist areas of knowledge within the more general field of Books and Paper to carve out that all-important niche and focus.
I could reflect with Hayley on what I would have done differently (is it a good idea to stay in the same job for a long time?) and what decisions have been really valuable. We considered what makes a great portfolio (and what doesn't), chatted about her course and her written assignments as well as challenges I faced this year at work. All of which provided Hayley and I with rich discussion opportunities.
One of the hardest parts of being an early stage conservator is following work around the country and having to uproot your life in the process.
Although I loved my job at the Fine Art Restoration Company, the studio was based in Carlisle, and recently I was compelled to leave in order to look for work in the south of England, where my friends and family would be closer.
I’m currently in the situation which many of my peers from Northumbria are facing: looking for work! At the moment there seem to be very few internships and jobs available in painting conservation.
My past experience of applying for the highly coveted internships at prestigious institutions has been quite disheartening. Applicants are expected to have considerable experience and specific research interests, which can be difficult to pinpoint at such an early stage.
Furthermore, I have never received any feedback for these applications which has made it very difficult to know how to improve for the future.
In such a turbulent world and with such low wages and short contracts in the profession, it appears harder than ever to be entering into life as a conservator.
Resources for mentoring and coaching rely more and more on private donations to release the time of more experienced conservators.
At the British Library we are always working to expand what we can offer such as internships, and initiatives such as mentoring through Icon can really help too.
The mentoring relationship allowed us to reflect on what different conservation careers look like and how Hayley might build one that is sustainable for her.
She is talented, motivated and conscientious and like most graduates, wishes to build a full life around her chosen career.
I very much hope that those of us who have found our feet can help to create and shape opportunities in the profession and continue to make time to coach emerging conservators to make this a reality.