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Eliza Doherty

Organics Conservator at the British Museum
attended the 19th International Course on Wood Conservation Technology

In 2020 I was awarded a grant to attend this course which was organised by the Directorate for Cultural Heritage in Norway (Riksantikvaren) in partnership with ICCROM (International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property) and NTNU (Norwegian University of Science and Technology). It was originally due to be held in Oslo in June 2020 but was postponed due to the pandemic and eventually held online March-May 2021.

I applied for the course in order to broaden my knowledge, skills and experience in the conservation and technology of wooden objects and structures, building on my degree from City & Guilds of London Art School and professional life. I saw it as a unique opportunity to learn from experts with a wealth of experience, and to share and connect with peers from a wide range of countries and backgrounds.

The course covered a wide range of interdisciplinary topics relating to the conservation of wooden cultural heritage. The teaching was based on online lectures, meetings and discussions, as well as practical assignments and group-work. Weekly units included: properties of wood; factors affecting the decay of wood; preventive conservation; conservation of wooden objects and furniture; conservation of wooden buildings and structures; and paint and surface treatment. There were 20 participants representing countries all over the world and a range of professions; among the participants were conservators, conservation carpenters, conservation architects and a structural engineer. The course concluded with a final online examination, after which all participants were awarded 7 (ECT) university credits from NTNU.

Despite the limitations inherent in an online course, I found the experience hugely beneficial, enriching and enjoyable. The pre-recorded lectures were highly engaging and I liked being able to watch them in my own time, to pause and take notes, and to re-watch parts again. The thriceweekly meetings provided an opportunity to discuss the content of the lectures with the tutors and other participants, to ask questions, to share findings from group meetings (for which participants were divided into smaller groups) and to receive feedback on individual assignments.

The emphasis on collaboration and mutual learning, through group-work and the online discussion forum, was a real highlight. The later provided opportunities to share experiences, past failures and lessons learnt, to ask advice about particular projects and problems, to share resources, and to contribute to conversations that emerged from the units.

The interdisciplinary nature of the course was at the heart of its success. With experience in the conservation of moveable objects, I was looking forward to applying my existing knowledge to wooden structures and buildings, and found that much of what I learnt during this unit was applicable to my own work. There were several, overarching themes that ran through the whole course, which included: the significance of intangible values and the role of communities, as well as sustainable development and the affect (both current and future) of the climate crisis on wooden heritage conservation. It was fascinating to learn about the challenges faced by participants all over the world, and similarities and differences across countries and continents. The course certainly fulfilled my aim of deepening my knowledge of wood and its conservation: it provided new tools and insight, and enabled me to apply my knowledge to a diverse range of contexts. It endowed me with the expertise and confidence to approach complex problems and a wide range of wooden objects. While we were not able, this year, to explore the wooden heritage sites in Norway, I feel sure that I will have the opportunity to do so in future and am keenly anticipating one day meeting my fellow participants in person; for now, we have continued sharing ideas and experiences through social media.

In the final week of the course, I secured my dream job as an organics conservator at the British Museum, focusing on wood and decorative surfaces. I owe a large part of my success to this course, and I am looking forward to bringing to the new role all that I learnt over the eight weeks. I am hugely grateful to the Anna Plowden Trust and the Clothworkers’ Foundation for their support.