Photo: © Gill Cochrane / Courtesy of Historic Royal Palaces. The object is the Raynham Hall bed and is located in the Queen’s apartments.
I realised some years ago that I was in the wrong career and needed to make a change. I had always loved textiles and previously worked in costume, but the dream was to conserve and preserve the wonderful textiles I was always drawn to in museums. However, to train as a conservator would have meant a three year full time course, which, with a young family, I couldn’t commit to. Over time I did all I could to use and improve my practical skills, and by the time my family had grown up I was working in a small museum looking after the garment collection and exhibition loans. I was always conscious of my lack of technical conservation training though, and knew that I could not compete in the job market against colleagues who had conservation degrees. Reaching my 50’s I decided it was ‘now or never’ and finally plucked up the courage to apply for the Collections Care and Conservation Management MA at West Dean.
The course was an ideal opportunity to back up my practical experience with some academic rigour and my work-based learning placement at Historic Royal Palaces was a wonderful opportunity to gain hands-on experience in a much larger organisation than I was already in, and to widen my professional network. The course structure of block study and work based learning placement fit quite easily around my museum work and I didn’t need to take much time off. It was certainly challenging to fit it all in, but study and work complemented each other and I learnt to juggle time and priorities. A skill that has been very useful since!
It felt like a privilege to study at West Dean. Almost all the other students are there to hone their conservation skills, or develop creative talents in the arts, so there is an incredibly supportive atmosphere among the students. A large part of the specialist material was taught by visiting lecturers, many of whom are legends in their field, so it felt like learning from the very best.
Having the house itself as a living case study for learning conservation techniques must be unique to this course, and being able to stay in the house was the icing on the cake for me. I particularly enjoyed working in the billiard room library in the evenings, and walking in the beautiful grounds in the mornings before breakfast. There’s no better way to clear your head for day ahead. Which is good, because every day was crammed with so much learning that a week at West Dean felt like a month elsewhere!
I wasn’t quite ready for the intensity of the study blocks – the days are long and every minute is packed with learning. Having been out of full time education for thirty years, the idea of academic writing was quite daunting, but for me personally the most difficult thing was learning to stand up and present my work to the class, which is a regular element of the course. Many of us felt the same but we soon realised we were all in it together, and those presentation sessions became a ‘safe’ space where we could try and fail, and eventually make progress, without being judged. This was an invaluable skill and I am very grateful for those sessions now, as they helped build my personal confidence, which has helped me in my career. I have been able to present on behalf of my museum at a European conference – something I would never have considered before my West Dean training!
I particularly enjoyed working on my final assignment, the dissertation, which was an opportunity to really go into depth on a subject that was important to me. Through my research I learnt networking skills and built connections and professional relationships that I have sustained ever since. Equally at my WBL placement, the connections and friendships I made were incredibly valuable and I have continued to do voluntary work with HRP since graduating.
West Dean College recognises effort on all levels and I was very proud to be awarded the Willard Conservation Prize in my final year. As well as conservation skills training, the CCCM course gave me confidence in myself and helped me develop problem-solving skills that I now apply to my daily working life. Since graduating I have moved into a new position at work that I would not have had the skills or the confidence to achieve before West Dean. I have extremely fond memories of my time at West Dean and I am incredibly proud to be part of the College alumni.
Hear Gill talk about the course