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This article was written on 27 Feb 2015, and is filled under Fashion, Museums and Galleries, Science.

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Bernice Morris: Textile conservator


Bernice Morris is the Associate Conservator of Costume and Textiles at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. If you have fantasies about being locked inside a museum overnight, then prepare to be jealous- above you can see a photo of Bernice carrying out a stitch repair on Grace Kelly’s wedding dress!

We asked Bernice what it’s like to have such a hands-on relationship with history and the dedication that led her to move from the UK to the States for work.

OM: Can you describe an average day at work?
BM: On an average day I’ll work mainly in the Textile Conservation lab flitting between different projects – maybe I’ll be checking the condition of a 16th century tapestry that we are considering cleaning, or I’ll be building a mannequin out of foam for a costume exhibition, or perhaps looking at fibres from a textile under the microscope to identify them.

I do a lot of precise stitching with tiny needles too. In the run up to an exhibition I’ll be racing between the gallery and the lab getting the objects ready for display.

Art conservators are in the business of preservation rather than restoration. We aren’t employed to just make things look pretty: rather we conserve original material, try to understand an artist’s intent (when they are no longer around to tell us), and slow down the inevitable degradation of historic material. Our work is informed heavily by science and art historical knowledge, and we have to develop strong hand skills.

OM: Have you always wanted to be a textile conservator ?
BM: No. But mostly because I had no idea such a career existed.

I was never sure what I would do since I was a bit of a jack of all trades; a very solid all-rounder with plenty of interests, but never truly brilliant at anything. Once I discovered Conservation while in my final year of university, I jumped through all the hoops necessary to make it my career. It’s a career that suits an all-rounder: within an hour I may need to perform a complicated scientific calculation, stitch with almost invisible thread, do some quick historic research, and contemplate an ethical dilemma.

OM: What was the hardest part about becoming a textile conservator ?
BM: To become a textile conservator you need to get through a pretty tough masters degree course, but upon graduation you are only a textile conservator in name, the real challenge is getting a job. We are a tiny field with very few permanent museum jobs available. There are more short-term fellowship and contracts around and there are many conservators who work in private practice, but anyone looking for the stability of a staff job may need to be flexible about location. I moved to the US when the perfect opportunity arose and have been here for 9 years.

OM: And what’s the best part of the job?
BM: Touching the art.

I feel a sneaky pleasure being able to legitimately touch objects in a building full of “please do not touch” signs.

Being surrounded by beautiful things all day is bonus.

OM: Do you feel you’re treated differently in your industry because you’re a woman?
BM: The conservation world currently is female in majority with many women in leadership positions. I’ve never had any fears that there might be a glass ceiling determined by gender.

I find the mostly female environment to be extremely supportive. I do wonder though if the low wages found throughout the profession may be something to do with our gender.


 Bernice cleaning a 19th dress with gentle vacuum suction

OM: What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever been given? And what other advice would you give to anyone looking to become an X ? What qualifications and experience do you need?
BM: Two pieces of advice have served me well: Slow down, and don’t complain. Slowing down may be specific to conservation – perfection is more important than speed, and most mistakes happen when you rush.

‘Don’t complain’ I think is applicable to anyone in the early stages of their career. Interns and fellows often get stuck with the less desirable jobs and feel hard done by. In fact, every process can be seen as a learning opportunity, and a stepping stone to more difficult tasks. Recognise that busy people are taking time to supervise you and pass on their expertise. Moaning to the people who you would one day like to employ you is just not smart.

Textile conservators must complete a Masters degree in Textile Conservation after a relevant undergraduate degree (such as science, fine art, art history). There are opportunities to train as an apprentice too.

OM: What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made in the workplace or in your career?
BM: I melted a dress when cleaning it with solvents. I now test everything I clean more rigorously!

OM: What does success mean to you?
BM: Success for me means having a secure framework in place that allows me to pursue goals and interests, both personal and professional.

I feel successful because my job provides me with the funds and schedule to spend time with my family (I have 2 small children), and at work I have a level of freedom that allows me to manage my own projects and do research outside of day to day activities. I also feel like I’m doing some good. No, I’m not saving lives, but I feel strongly that we must not let our material heritage disappear.

OM: What’s your feminist wish for the future?
BM: To see female artists properly represented in museum collections.


The Institute of Conservation


One Comment

  1. Alexandra Ulrich
    13th March 2015

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