My supervisor is Bradley Mottie, he is a conservator at the Iziko Social History Centre. As a conservator, he is in charge of cleaning and preserving the collections through both preventative and active conservation (like cleaning and repairs). But unlike conservators in the States, the conservators here at Iziko are also responsible for the packing and unpacking of the collections, the movement of any objects, the recording of the condition of the objects, storing the collections and monitoring the environment, matting/framing/mounting any object before it is exhibited, and then the installation and de-installation of all exhibitions. And I should mention that the Social History Collections serve nine different museums within the Iziko community, so not only is it an extensive collection, but there are countless exhibits that are also under the care of Bradley and his department. Because of this, the work is endless and our days are always full. For days I tried to find time to sit down with Bradley and interview him for this project, I finally had time at the end of the day today when we had five minutes before Bradley had to leave to catch his bus (a one hour commute each way). The interview may not have been extensive, but it was still insightful. Plus, it made me realize how busy he and his department is.
The transcript of our short and sweet interview is as follows:
How did you get into museum work?
It was actually by accident, at the time I was with my Masters in Material Science and a post just became vacant at government, which I just then applied. And they were looking for somebody who had got some knowledge about different materials, who could do some type of compositional analysis. And I fit that profile.
What is your career path? Are you happy in this position or is there something else that you’d like to do?
I would like to own my own business. But unfortunately as you can see, this job, you don’t even have time to take lunch. But yeah, at the moment in South Africa, you know, conservation hasn’t really got a real good career path. So yeah, if you’re tired of here you will have to move in to another field. That’s just the way it is in South Africa.
What challenges to you face in your position?
Shortage of staff, shortage of money. Workload is enormous, [with] two conservators and nine museums, [there’s] constant circulation and changing of exhibitions. And your knowledge of all materials needs to be quite well since you work with all materials. So it’s quite challenging. No two days are the same.
What are things that you’ve considered successes in your career?
Well you know where I previously come from, I’ve only been at Iziko for two years, but where I come from, you know, we always worked as a real team and our successes were always measured on the outcomes of our exhibitions. And we were very busy in terms of delivering community exhibitions to the greater Western Cape, and yeah, that alone gives you a feeling like no other, the type of satisfaction that you get. The pay is lousy, but yeah, haha.
What type of advice do you have for people entering the museum field?
Sure, it’s quite a tough field and it can be challenging. Certain positions doesn’t [sic] really seem to be very challenging, but once you’re in our kind of job, no two days are really the same. So if you’re looking for excitement, if you’re looking for enjoyment, then yeah. Also, keeping touch with communities outside of museums is definitely one of the key pillars to be active in museums.
I learned five main things from talking to Bradley. First, I had heard that many people get into the museum field “by accident”, but they usually studied art history or anthropology or something, so it wasn’t really surprising. But Bradley studied chemistry and nuclear physics, so hearing about him just happening to apply for a museum job really made me realize that people working in museums really do come from all sorts of backgrounds. Secondly I learned how there’s no career path for conservators in South Africa because there’s not really any money to fund it. Federal funds have to go to more dire things so the government isn’t going to pay to have artifacts conserved as well as they should be. Luckily, Bradley and the rest of the conservators do a great job with the resources they have. Third, talking with Bradley made me realize that not only is there a lack of funding for conservation, there is a lack of conservators in South Africa as well. He and Fatima are the two conservators for the whole collection, and then there are two assistant conservators, Janene and Alta. I don’t remember how Alta got into conservation, but Janene started out as a museum attendant and became interested in exhibitions and conservation from watching installations of exhibits, and after she applied for assistant conservator and was accepted, she just learned on the job. So there aren’t people going to school for conservation like in the U.S., it’s a whole different approach. And this lack of employees plus the lack of funds leads me to my fourth conclusion, that at some museums you have to do the job of three people. I’ve heard people talk about “wearing different hats” when working in a museum, but I’ve never heard of or seen anyone literally doing the job of three different people/departments. Bradley (and the department) does the work of a conservator, a preparator, and a registrar; and not just for one museum, but for nine, which is amazing. Finally, talking with Bradley made me realize how you can still feel a tie with your community through the conservation or exhibitions department, and that you don’t have to be an educator or curator to feel like you are reaching out to your community. Doing the physical work, making sure that these objects are still around for generations to come or to actually be the one who physically puts the exhibition together, is still a way of reaching out or making connections to the community.