Caring for culture
When talking about the Centre’s work, Sloggett often uses the word “materiality”. Conservators need to respect the historical and cultural significance of the pieces they work on, but just as importantly they need to understand how they are made – whether from clay, canvas, woven silk or pieces of bark.
The Warmun collection was made using traditional methods, but also from modern materials that the artists found. Repairing the salvaged Gija art works presented many challenges – some material, some cultural.
In October 2011, Gija elders Patrick Mung Mung, Nancy Nodea, Eileen Bray and Mabel Juli travelled to Melbourne to assist in the restoration work. Their advice was that flood damage should be treated but that no repainting should occur.
The elders shared the songs and stories associated with the paintings, so the University’s students and staff could understand their significance. Conservators and students worked on restoring the collection over two years. When the paintings were returned to Warmun, “a joonba”, or big ceremonial performance, was held to celebrate. Patrick Mung Mung explained how the “two-way learning”, which initiated the collection, continued during the restoration: “These paintings were made by the old people to teach young Gija people. Now they are used for young people at the University, and soon they will be used in Warmun to educate Gija young people again.”
Work with remote communities is an important part of the Centre’s work. A Specialist Certificate is now offered to Indigenous people with high levels of skill and experience, which may provide the option of going on to do a Master’s degree.
Our students are phenomenal. Good critical thinkers. Very highly motivated.
Student conservators from the Centre are also engaged with East Timor, with some learning one of the country’s official languages, Tetum.
Sloggett’s crowded office shows a delight in the material world: a bird’s nest teeters on a bookshelf and Timorese weavings are draped on a chair.
When the Centre began, it offered professional fee-based conservation services. These range from helping police authenticate and attribute works of art, to assisting in the care of private art collections.
Businessman and philanthropist Robert Cripps first approached the conservators in the late 1990s because he wanted to take better care of his paintings – works depicting East Anglia, a region in England with a strong family connection. The Cripps Foundation was established by the family in 1956.
When the Centre began to teach a Master’s course in 2004, Robert was asked to join the advisory committee. “I wanted Robert because of his understanding of collections and collectors, and also as a business person,” says Sloggett. “He was a sympathetic partner.”
Universities are now encouraged to develop commercial arms and partnerships, but in 2006 a University restructure meant the Centre’s commercial operation was under threat, says Sloggett. She considered it vital that it continue.
“We need to know what the relevant questions are out there in the real world,” she says. It is also important for graduates and researchers to “have a relationship with the people managing collections”.
The commercial services provided by the Centre combine art historical research, caring for physical materials and science-based solutions. The Cripps gift means the work done will continue, and grow.
“The work takes place in the real world. You can’t make it up,” says Sloggett. “We respond to real need.”
– Kathy Kizilos