Tuesday, 21 October 2014




I had the pleasure of meeting Caitlin Coleman, a graduate of the MMSt program here at the iSchool, this past Friday for coffee at CafĂ© Panemar in Kensington Market (their muffins are scrumptious, by the way) to discuss the role conservation plays in her professional life. I thought it would be enlightening to speak to someone whose job title is not specifically “Conservator” to demonstrate the ways that conservation can be present in different lines of work. The following is an abridged version of the recording I made of our interview.

Which iSchool program are you a graduate of and when did you graduate?
Museum Studies, 2009.

What is your official position title?
I’m the Acting Lab Manager at Archaeological Services Inc. I’m currently covering a maternity leave.

What are your main duties as Acting Lab Manager?
In the lab, we basically guide the artefacts through the whole processing that happens. When artefacts first get excavated, they come to us, we get them clean and organized, then we send them off to analysis, and we take them back when that is completed. So we basically organize things but also keep track of where everything is at all times.

Caitlin Coleman, Acting Lab Manager at Archaeological Services Inc. Source.

When are the artefacts officially out of your hands, or are they ever?
They are never out of our hands. The legislation around CRM companies is that once you excavate them, you are basically the steward for your artefacts. Unless we find an institution or museum that is interested in them, they are our responsibility.

How does conservation fit into your position, or to put it differently, what does conservation mean to you?
Well, my job isn’t specifically conservation, but it’s taking care of artefacts so for me, it’s making sure that you’re doing the best thing for whatever artefact you’re dealing with. So, since washing is part of our processes, if something is delicate and needs extra attention, you need to give it immediately. If you’re not concentrating on what you’re doing, you could damage delicate items. Say you get a little shell button: they can dissolve in water. Through the washing process you also have to give everything proper time to dry and then store it appropriately to keep it safe. So if you have a delicate item like a ground stone bead, you’d definitely put that into a box.

Toothbrushes can be helpful tools for washing artefacts. Source.

What kinds of basic conservation techniques do you use?
It’s pretty low-tech. We mostly use water and toothbrushes – that’s always worked the best – and then we have a bunch of other tools to clean nooks and crannies. Some things you can push pretty hard on to make sure they’re clean like historic glass or ceramic. If you have pre-contact ceramic, it can be very delicate and can crumble, so you have to go slowly with a softer brush. It depends. If at any point when you’re washing something and it starts to come apart, then it’s going to stay dirty.

Have you ever had to perform emergency conservation?
I think that the thing that becomes a real emergency for us is if there’s ever mold. It will naturally happen sometimes when you’re taking stuff out of the ground, which can frequently be quite waterlogged. Certain artefacts, especially porous ceramics, just suck in moisture, like brick or red ware crock ware. If it’s stored in a plastic bag, you can get mold. Something like that, though, it’s fixable. You’re just going to have to rewash it, give it extra attention, and give it as long as it needs to dry. It’s something easy to care of, but it can be kind of gross!

Mold is a serious threat to artefacts, specially those that come from waterlogged contexts. Source.

Has there ever been a time when you had to liaise with a professional conservator on a specific project?
Actually, I’ve never worked with a conservator and we haven’t sent anything off to a conservator either. We try to not do anything intrusive to objects.

What is the most important tip you can give someone in collections management – so, your line of work – when it comes to conservation, drawing from your own experience?
You only get one chance to do the first step because if you aren't paying attention and you miss something delicate, you can't get that artefact back. Even though the work can be pretty repetitive, you need to have a high degree of attention. You need to be really meticulous and careful.
This fragment from a pipe is an example of how delicate the artefacts that Archaeological Services Inc. encounters can be. Source.

Many thanks to Caitlin for kindly agreeing to speak to me about conservation! To learn more about what Archaeological Services Inc. does, please visit their website.


  1. This is great! I like to learn about our graduates who work in the less obvious areas of the museum profession. It is also very interesting to see how one's academic undergraduate experience is tied into her graduate studies and inform the professional route!

    1. That was exactly what informed my thinking when I approached Ms. Coleman for the interview. There are so many possibilities an education in Museum Studies can lead to. I'm happy to hear that you found the interview enlightening!

  2. This is wonderful Madeline! It's nice to know about the possibilities for work in the museum sector.