MA Conservation Studies, specialising in books and library materials 2015 - 2017

Mito Matsumaru

Book Conservator, Cambridge Colleges' Conservation Consortium

Talk us through your career path since graduating

After completing my MA course in September 2017, I almost immediately got a short term contract as book conservator for the Wellcome Trust. This job allowed me to refine my problem-solving skills in a professional environment and to be prepared for a more permanent position.

Since November 2017, I have been very lucky to work as book conservator at the Cambridge Colleges' Conservation Consortium. It is a small conservation studio in the heart of Cambridge, where a team of four conservators deal with the library and archive collections of 15 of the colleges at the University of Cambridge.

The breadth and diversity of the collections means that I have had the chance to work on a great range of objects from 15th century parchment manuscripts to maps, letters, archival documents and leather bound books. I've also participated in on-site preservation projects for some of the libraries.

This is a very busy life but one I thoroughly enjoy as it keeps bringing new challenges and opportunities to improve my skills. I really love my job!

What projects are you currently working on?

I have just finished the conservation treatment of a large size (approximately100 x 150 cm) modern hand-coloured map made of tracing paper. It was severely damaged through usage and by having been rolled too tightly for storage. It first took me 10 days to reassemble the "jigsaw puzzle" made of a multitude of minute detached tracing paper fragments and to consolidate the flaky surface (phew!). To keep this fragile map in an optimal manner, I then designed and made a bespoke storage box with an archival core tube around which the map can be rolled with minimal stress. I really enjoyed the absorbing and meticulous work but also the creative aspect of the box design process.

What do you consider your biggest achievement to date?

Besides graduating from West Dean? ;) One of my favourite assignments so far has been a 15th century Italian Manuscript with gorgeous illuminations on parchment. This manuscript had been rebound in the 19th century in a tight binding which strained the folios and provided very limited opening. In order to both limit future damage to the object and to facilitate consultation a complete - historically compatible - rebinding had to be done.

This required a lot of historical research and modelling to identify the most appropriate binding structure, sewing style and covering materials to be used. Needless to say that besides technical challenges, the responsibility one feels when working on such precious documents is both frightening and exhilarating. This is one of the projects which taught me the most! I had to think comprehensively, make multiple models, consult with experts, and accept that conservation treatments are always a compromise. The manuscript is now bound in an alum-tawed skin and stored securely in a bespoke box - I am very glad with the outcome.

Do you have any tips for recent graduates?

My key advice is "be prepared".

Of course prepare your portfolio and CV, and be aware of your strengths and weaknesses for job hunting. Be also prepared to fail at a few interviews (I had quite a few experiences myself), and to learn from this. Stay motivated!

Last but not least be prepared to keep learning. Getting a degree and getting a job is not the end of your education as a conservator but in many ways only the beginning. Learn by doing, keep up to date with professional standards and set your own professional growth objectives. For example, I found joining the ICON ACR pathway very useful to help me identify how much I have achieved and where I still need to improve.

How do you think studying at West Dean College prepared you for what you do now?

The West Dean experience was incredible in that it provides students with a great, supportive and multidisciplinary environment to practice and improve their skills. Most importantly for me West Dean is unique in making students face - from the very beginning - the realities and responsibilities of the conservation profession by assigning "real" conservation projects from external libraries & clients. This comprehensive approach to conservation, with the constant support of tutors, not only gave me the opportunity to develop my hands-on skills but really strengthened my confidence in professional decision making.

What's your favourite memory from your time at the College?

That's a very tough question as there were many great times both academically and socially!

I have a wonderful memory of our graduation party when we all dressed up as characters from A Midsummer Night's dream and enjoyed the flowery West Dean Gardens on an Early-summer night.
The placement I did at the V&A for my second year was also an unforgettable experience and has been central to my professional development.

Lastly, as a city girl from Tokyo, studying in a campus in the middle of the English countryside was amazing - the best way to focus on my study as well as to enjoy the beauty of nature in a peaceful environment.