As Sarah-Jane Rennie, head of collections care at Sydney Living Museums, reminds us, ‘at SLM, it’s less glamorous, more grimy, although never mundane’. From battling outbreaks of mould and polishing antique silver to smoothing out wrinkles in a tattered doll’s dress, her workload is nothing if not varied.
Since childhood Sarah-Jane has been regularly on the move. She spent her first seven years in Adelaide, before her family relocated to Melbourne, then Boston, Massachusetts, and, later, Papua New Guinea, where Sarah Jane spent a memorable summer volunteering at the National Museum.
Back in Australia, she completed an arts degree in archaeology, history and English literature at Melbourne University, which included a year of volunteering in the conservation lab at Museum Victoria. This led to further studies in the conservation of cultural materials at the University of Canberra. On the heels of a conservation internship at Harvard Art Museums in Massachusetts came a master’s degree in public history in Sydney. Sarah-Jane has worked at the National Museum of Australia, Artlab Australia in Adelaide, the Australian National Maritime Museum and Museums & Galleries of NSW. She took on her role at Sydney Living Museums in 2012.
‘Believe it or not, most of the time we’re controlling the environments where objects are stored or displayed: managing temperature, humidity and light levels, dust, mould and insects, along with things like security and safety. And given we work across 12 unique museum sites, and several storage facilities, that’s a lot of environments to look after.’
In 2015, Sarah-Jane tended to a number of objects from Rouse Hill House & Farm that were on show in the Toys through Time exhibition at the Museum of Sydney. Among them were a doll’s wedding dress and a gentleman doll that’s missing his head, an arm and a foot.
‘Basically I’m a broker between the exhibition curator, who wants these objects to look amazing, the house curator, who needs to know they’re being looked after, the specialist conservator, who’s helping with some small repairs and preparing them for display, and, finally, the designer, who’s “printing” 3D supports for the objects to safely rest on in the showcase.’ The wedding dress and the groom were key pieces in the show so there’s pressure to get the balance right. Sarah-Jane says, ‘If we look at “the headless Duke”, he’s not in good condition at all. However, we would never want to make him look new because that wipes out his history. Even the lost limbs tell a story’.
More analytical are projects at Rose Seidler House and the Museum of Sydney. As Sarah-Jane explains, ‘We know that the late 1940s was a really experimental period for industrial materials and it’s no surprise that, among other things, “space age” asphalt flooring was trialled by Harry Seidler. Not only are the original tiles quite vulnerable but there have also been lots of replacement sections added over the years. Making sense of the story is a bit like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle’.
Sarah-Jane describes conservation as a ‘lovely nexus of science, craft and history’. But it’s the history that matters. ‘I love science and chemistry and craft and all that but I do also love the stories embodied in collections and enabling those stories to be understood through caring for objects at risk, not just for now but into the future.
‘As conservators, we’ve got a really long time frame … we’re always thinking about who’s going to be able to appreciate this in a hundred years – and how are we going to be able to bring this object forward into that future. For example, when I was working at Harvard Art Museums I was reading object treatment reports that were written in the 1930s, so we know that stuff we do now will still be studied in 70 or 80 years time. It’s quite different to that idea of what’s here today is gone tomorrow. It’s a very long view, a long horizon, we call it the long now …’