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14 Dec 2021

A day in the life of a ... Regional Conservator

Written by Lesley Scott, ACR
A smiling woman wearing a navy fleece jacket stands beside a water wheel at the side of an old mill building.
Lesley at Preston Mill, by the waterwheel
In this series, we join colleagues across the Trust for a behind-the-scenes glance at the important role they play in caring for our special places. Here we meet Lesley, who is part of the Curatorial and Conservation Services team and works to preserve the collections and interiors in our care.

I’m Lesley, an Institute of Conservation (Icon) Accredited Conservator. I work as Conservation Advisor for the Edinburgh and East region at the National Trust for Scotland. As one of three regional conservators at the Trust, I am responsible for giving guidance in preventive conservation to help with the preservation of the artefacts and interiors that make up part of the properties’ cultural heritage. I also oversee any necessary remedial conservation, bringing in external conservators when the object or interior decoration cannot be preserved any other way.

Within my department of Heritage & Consultancy Services, I don’t have a typical day as my workload is so varied, but it could involve advising on our environmental monitoring system, training in pest management, handling artefacts or reporting on an object’s condition – however I can best support my region’s properties.

“Ultimately, as a conservator, my aim is to ensure there is understanding of why we need to undertake preventive conservation and that good conservation decisions are made at our places.”
Lesley Scott
Regional Conservator
A smiling woman wearing a navy fleece jacket stands beside a water wheel at the side of an old mill building.

I came into conservation as I was interested in heritage and enjoyed art, science and history at school. I wanted to know more about preservation and so I trained at art college in Conservation and Restoration Studies. Here I learned about the materials that objects are made from, the processes in their manufacture, how to identify weaknesses, and understanding how you can delay deterioration through preventive measures and careful handling.

I’ve had a varied career as a conservator: from large-scale decant and storage programmes to exhibition installations. I’ve also been involved with the remedial treatment of objects such as Wedgwood wax medallions, items from Napoleon’s tea service and David Livingstone’s medical kit, as well as condition-checking loaned objects that were on the film set of Titanic.

Conservation practices continue to develop for collections care. I work with the wider conservation community, as well as placement students and interns, to ensure the Trust is up to date and undertaking the most appropriate actions. As the public now have a greater understanding of the work of heritage professionals, part of my job is to enable access through talks, online engagement or conservation-in-action events so visitors can see the efforts and processes involved in looking after collections.

An interesting project that I am currently working on took me to my most southern property: Robert Smail’s Printing Works in Innerleithen in the Borders. Behind an unassuming shop front is a time capsule of Scotland’s industrial heritage, little changed from the days when newspapers, stationery and business cards were printed there (1866–1986). The machinery that sits alongside drawers of type and tools, ledgers and papers is still operational. You are immediately transported into a world of industrial innovations and are in awe at the work printers and compositors undertake to produce printed material.

An image of a Victorian-windowed shop front with R. Smail & Sons in gold letters above the window. The door to the shop is on the right.
The exterior of Robert Smail’s Printing Works, Innerleithen

At Smail’s, the challenge is to ensure the conservation, as well as the retention of the knowledge of the processes and operation, of the printing machinery. This is very much at the forefront of the work I am undertaking there with my colleagues and an external specialist conservator in industrial conservation.

My job is to carefully consider the conservation priorities alongside the historical context of the provenance or intended use of the object, ensuring ethical decisions are taken regarding conservation. Whenever work is carried out, I make sure actions are documented and we follow industry standards and guidelines.

I’m lucky that my job allows me to work daily with such a wide range of historical artefacts and interiors. If you find yourself looking at an object in one of the Trust properties and wondering how it was made or how it is protected and cared for, then maybe a career in conservation and collections care is for you too.

A view of multiple printing blocks, letters and shapes in wooden trays and drawers.
Typeset blocks in trays and drawers at Robert Smail’s Printing Works

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