Claire Magill, ICRI Board Member and conservator with The National Trust in Northern Ireland, writes about keeping conservators on as essential workers during the COVID-19 crisis. How has her role and routine adjusted in the current unprecedented situation. Read on........
Conservators: ‘Business Critical’ in National Trust
In mid-March the National Trust took the opportunity to avail of the government scheme to furlough those members of staff not carrying out essential tasks for the conservation charity. Remembering this was a hard decision as all roles are valuable to the Trust. Members of staff who aren’t furloughed will continue to work and be paid as normal. By late April 79.4% of staff had been furloughed.
How was the decision made internally to keep conservators on the essential workers list?
As part of my interim Head conservator role, along with my job share, we created a recommendation paper to ensure we had at least one conservator in each region, to support and advise the house team remaining on the essential staff list. Their essential tasks included weekly and monthly checks on environmental control, integrated pest management system, and collections care (housekeeping tasks). Regional conservators also had to ensure each property salvage plans and emergency responses were up to date, as well as provide virtual training online for those remaining at properties
What does it mean for you in a practical way?
This means a series of ‘check ins’ by phone call or video meeting, with each of those staff remaining at properties, topped up with a weekly group team chat of about 10-12 people. These are a useful way for the whole group to touch base and discuss any issues that are faced by us all, and are a great opportunity for other disciplines to join the call- on the most recent call we were joined by the Assistant Director of Operations, as well as our marcomms team who were interested to hear the type of work that was ongoing which could be shared with our members and supporters on social media, website and via our quarterly newsletter to our members.
What way has your work changed?
During the Coronavirus lockdown my diary is filled with phone calls and video meetings as regional office and our properties are closed.
My normal working patterns required physical interaction working as part of the multi-disciplinary consultancy at regional office (Rowallane Garden, Saintfield), as well as property site visits to the eight mansion houses in our care across Northern Ireland. We still work collaboratively but with a reduced team and mainly through our virtual world. Usual business would involve regular ‘collections clinics’ with House and Collections managers and their General Managers, to walk the showrooms and pick up on any issues and identify solutions for preventive and remedial conservation treatments.
What does it say about our profession's status during times of crisis?
In recent years other conservation & collections disciplines within the organisation have been reviewed and subsequently grew in number to reflect lead roles and assistant roles. This included curatorial, buildings surveyors and let estate teams meanwhile the conservator discipline structure remained as it has been since the last review in 2002. In the last year, as interim Head conservator I have been involved in conversations on our ‘value’ as a discipline to the organisation with a view to undertaking a re-profiling of the role of regional conservator and conservation advisors. Conservators are seen as business critical during the Coronavirus crisis which should encourage further conversation about how we play an integral part in looking after our cultural heritage- ‘for everyone, for ever’.