Art History & Art Conservation

Department of Art History & Art Conservation

It is a pleasure to introduce Valery Monahan (MAC 1992) in our new Alumni Interview Series. Valery is a Conservator in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory and she shared some of her rewarding experiences working in this region with Kaoru Yui (MAC 2020), graduate student of the Master of Art Conservation program at Queen’s University

Q: Why did you decide to go to the Yukon Territory?

A: One of my Queen’s internships was actually in the Yukon. I did a three-month internship with Parks Canada in Dawson City, Yukon. When the job here was advertised, I had a sense of what Yukon was like and I had been here before. When I saw the job description, it seemed like a good match for some of the projects that I worked in the past, and also had elements that really spoke to me in terms of working with archaeological materials, working directly with the First Nations communities, so I applied. This excerpt is part of an extended interview, available here




We have launched an exciting interview series for the 40th anniversary of the Queen’s Art    Conservation Program.  Some of our recent students interviewed leaders in the conservation field who have links with the Program.  We are very pleased to showcase the work and impact these people have had nationally and internationally.  This initiative is also a wonderful opportunity for students to have personal contact with conservation professionals.  The lasting result of this project is for these fascinating interviews to appear on the Art Conservation websites where they have the potential to inspire prospective students, the Queen’s community, and the public. 

You will see from the list below that most of the people interviewed are graduates of the program, but this is not always the case.  For example, Laura Hashimoto (MAC 2015) interviewed Ian Hodkinson, the founder of the Queen’s program.  When Makedonka Gulcev interviewed Season Tse from the Canadian Conservation Institute about her colleague, the late Helen Burgess (MAC 1979), and her important impact on conservation, Makedonka also took the opportunity to interview Season, whose help has been so pivotal for Queen’s students, through her lectures and discussions about research.

This interview series is a project we intend to continue.  We hope you enjoy reading the first of these conversations that took place in the spring and summer of 2015.

The interviews have been edited for clarity and brevity. Click on images for larger, uncropped versions. 

Helen Burgess, (MAC 1979, research), Senior Conservation Scientist, Canadian Conservation Institute

Q:How did Queen’s prepare Helen Burgess for her career?

A:The Queen's program gave her a chance to combine her love of science and art and a chance to apply her knowledge of science to conservation.  Her research at Queen’s consolidated a suite of analytical techniques for studying cellulose degradation and a focus on conservation bleaching that was to benefit the paper and textile conservation field for years to come.  It also gave Helen the chance to exercise her gift of communication and teaching, as she helped many of her fellow classmates in understanding complex chemical concepts in conservation. For the full Interview click here

James Bourdeau (MAC 1987, paintings), Director of Scientific Services, Canadian Conservation Institute

Q: What do you like the most about your job?

A: The goals of public service dovetail very well with the altruistic aspirations of conservators to save things for posterity.  What I enjoy most is that each week I could be running around reviewing many different conservation and heritage trades projects in heritage buildings and advising project leaders on the way the work is proceeding. For the full interview, click here

Dr. Miriam Clavir (MAC 1976, artifacts), Research Fellow and Conservator Emerita, University of British Columbia

Q: You were part of the very first class graduating from the Queen’s Master of Art Conservation Program.  Could you speak to how Queen’s prepared you and helped shape your career?

A: Yes, well Queen’s was extremely important for me. I am very grateful to Queen’s for being the university to start this program; it has been such an important program for Canadian heritage. We learned an awful lot, and Queen’s was certainly very supportive when I was there. For the full interview, please click here

Kate Helwig (MAC 1992, artifacts), Senior Conservation SCientist, Canadian Conservation Institute

Q: What do you like most about your job?

A: One thing I really like is the detective work aspect of it. Someone comes to you with a problem like why is this paint cracking or what is this white powder all over my object? It’s always something new and it’s always a bit of a mystery and I really love to be able to figure things like that out. I think the other thing I like is having such close contact with such beautiful works of art. I really enjoy that. I also enjoy the interdisciplinary nature of my job and the fact that I get to work with all sorts of different professionals: conservators, curators, and archaeologists. I think that gives a lot of variety to the job and I always get to learn new things because I’m working with people with very different backgrounds and knowledge from my own. For the full interview, please click here

Ian Hodkinson, Professor Emeritus of Paintings Conservation and founder of the Art Conservation Program, Queen’s University

Q: Is there an idea that you think is especially important to remember, while you are working in the field and when you are teaching?

A: Respect.  That’s the thing I think is most important.  Respect for the object and respect for the client or the custodian of the object.  We are all just custodians of the objects after all.  Also keeping in mind ethical practice while dealing with the object, in terms of invasive treatment or prevention.  That means knowing the original significance of the object, what the artist’s intent was, and what the acquired significances were, and all the questions that pertain to the object.  Down to the nitty gritty of the treatment, reversibility wherever possible is key.  Conservation for me means three things: investigation, preservation, and restoration.  All these things come together in conservation as far as I’m concerned. For the full interview, please click here

John McElhone (MAC 1985, artifacts), Chief Conservator, National Gallery of Canada

Q: On that note, would there be an idea you think particularly important for conservators to remember while working in the field or performing general lab work?

A: When you’re in a conservation lab, you’re in the nexus of a whole bunch of different processes that are going on, including (in the context of the National Gallery of Canada), exhibitions, loans out, new acquisitions coming in, research by conservators, curators, and researchers coming in to study our collections. It’s really wise to keep your eye on all of those processes happening around you and see where the interesting questions are and how you can insert yourself into responding to those questions by moving in to fill an emerging void and becoming something of a specialist expert yourself. For the full interview, please click here

Nora Nagy (MAC, 1991, artifacts), Conservator of Three-Dimensional Art, Whitney Museum of American Art and Conservator in Private Practice, Modern Scultpure Conservation LLC

Q: [Nora is discussing the process of conserving contemporary works]

A: I like the challenges…When I do the contemporary pieces I feel I am flying blind. It can be sometimes scary but very rewarding… Anyone who is in contemporary art conservation, I think, is in it because of the thrill of it. For the full interview, please click here

Claude Payer (MAC 1982, paintings) Scultpure Conservator, Centre de conservation du Québec (CCQ, Quebec Centre for Conservation)

Q:How has Queen’s University prepared you for your career?

A: I learned a great deal of technical information, knowledge of materials and material identification, how to see materials and how to look at them. Differentiating materials takes a certain amount of vocabulary. Also of course I learned conservation techniques, materials and tools. All of this was an essential foundation which would not otherwise have been available to me and which was fundamental to my professional development. For the full interview, please click here (version français). 

Bruno Pouliot (MAC 1983, artifacts), Objects Conservator and Associate Professor, Winterthur/University of Delaware Program

Q: You’re well known in the conservation community for many things. But your perspectives on the ethics of conserving indigenous artifacts are of particular interest to me. This year in our organics course we read your 1998 article on the blessing of two Wampum belts from the McCord Museum in the Journal of the Canadian Association for Conservation (JCAC). I was wondering if you could discuss this event, or any other events, that have shaped your way of thinking.

A: I never felt that conserving for the sake of conserving gave me full satisfaction. That came when I began to work with Native Americans, and especially the work that I did in the Arctic for six years with Native American communities. It was further reinforced when I came to the McCord Museum, where, alongside Moira McCaffrey, I worked with the Mi’kmaq community. It was an amazing experience from the start. For the full interview, please click here

Season Tse, Senior Conservation Scientist, Canadian Conservation Institute

Q: What do you like most about your job?

A: At the top of the list of what I like most about my job, is the opportunity to learn and to help people solve problems.  I get to learn about materials and why they deteriorate, methods of detecting change, remedial treatments and how to implement effective treatments given all the constraints.  I love collaboration, with both conservators and other scientists, whether towards a treatment or research.  They have different knowledge, perspectives and concerns. I learn from them and I love the synergy when we work together. For the full interview, click here.