University of Melbourne Magazine

Caring for culture

  • When a flash flood raged through Turkey Creek in 2011, the Gija people in the East Kimberley lost more than their homes. Their precious art collection – a living link to their history and culture – was inundated by the “angry water”.

    That’s when the peak Aboriginal artists’ association, ANKAAA, called the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation to help save the works. Conservator Marcelle Scott (GCertUniTeach 2005) and PhD candidate Lyndon Ormond-Parker flew to Kununurra, in northern Western Australia, to assess the damage. About 400 paintings and artefacts had been airlifted to the town by a helicopter provided by Argyle Diamonds.

    Art meets science: Conservator Marcelle Scott, left, and Associate Professor Robyn Sloggett.

    Art meets science: Conservator Marcelle Scott, left, and Associate Professor Robyn Sloggett.

    “There were paintings on canvas, paintings on wood, chipboard and plywood, and a large number of wooden carvings,” recalls Scott. Most were mouldy, others were encased in mud, with bits of twigs and leaves and “other material” stuck on to them.

    The paintings and artefacts, known as the Warmun Community Collection, had been housed in an inner room at the Warmun Art Centre. Gija elders, some of whom had gone on to become prominent Australian artists, had produced the paintings, boomerangs, spears and carvings to teach Gija children about their traditional way of life and beliefs.

    The flood knocked out Warmun’s power and phone lines and forced most of the population to be evacuated. “The members of the community were in several different places,” recalls Scott.

    “Some were stranded on the other side of Turkey Creek, some were evacuated to Kununurra.”

    Despite the many problems they faced, senior members of the Warmun community travelled to Kununurra to examine the saved works. The effort they made during a time of crisis made a big impression on Scott.

    “I saw that it was a very, very important project,” she recalls. “It was a hugely emotional moment for me and the elders.” The Warmun collection, she explains, represented the collective wisdom of generations. “To me, that is what art conservation is about, and it brought it back to me in a real way.”

    Scott and Ormond-Parker worked to document and stabilise the works – a process of “art triage”. About 300 pieces requiring laboratory-based treatment were then loaded into a refrigerated truck and driven 4500 kilometres to the University’s conservation laboratories in Carlton. Scott promised that all the pieces would be treated respectfully, and returned.

    “Most people don’t have a clear idea what we do, or the need for it,” says the Centre’s director, Associate Professor Robyn Sloggett (BA(Hons) 1979, PhD 2010). “They think it’s about fixing up paintings. In Australia, it’s very different to that.”

    The Centre’s work has just received a massive boost with a $6.9 million donation from the Cripps Foundation, as part of Believe – the Campaign for the University of Melbourne. The money will allow the Centre to move to dedicated modern laboratories opposite the University’s Ian Potter Museum of Art. The donation will also support an endowed Chair, with the inaugural appointment expected in early 2016.

    The new facility, expected to be ready by the end of the year, will be known as the Grimwade Centre for Art Conservation. The original centre was founded in 1989 with support from the Ian Potter Foundation and the Sir Russell and Lady Mab Grimwade Miegunyah fund.

    The Centre’s work encompasses academic research and real-life practice and is also multi-disciplinary. Graduates applying for the Master’s program must have an interest in art and science. Chemistry is a compulsory component; a bridging chemistry subject is offered for students who have an arts background, while science students are expected to have knowledge of fine arts.

    “We are rigorous,” says Sloggett. “Our students are phenomenal. Good critical thinkers. Very highly motivated.”