Q&A with Gisella Campanelli - Art Conservator
Wednesday, July 15, 2015
Posted by: Melanie Chiew
Dame Joan Sutherland Fund recipient, Art Conservator
Gisella Campanelli is an emerging Australian art conservator. In 2014, Gisella was awarded a grant from the Dame Joan Sutherland Fund to undertake an internship in ethnographic and natural science conservation at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Who are you as an artist?
As a conservator, I do not regard myself as an artist per se, but rather as a carer and restorer of art. My focus has been on objects of various material-types including, but not limited to, ceramics, stone, metal, wood, bark, and textiles. The experience gained at the American Museum of Natural History has broadened my understanding of ethnographic artifacts and natural science specimens, such as taxidermies, articulated skeletons and geological samples.
What prompted you to come to the US?
After undertaking various internships at Australian-based collecting institutions, I developed an interest in broadening my horizons. Expertise in the preservation of natural science specimens is lacking in Australia. I was keen on learning these practices in a well-reputed American museum and bringing this knowledge back home to Australia.
What did your course/project involve?
I had the opportunity to work with ethnographic artifacts from cultures across Asia and America. I gained insight into not only their tangible qualities, but learned of the need for cultural sensitivity and the procedures involved in repatriating human remains. I also restored taxidermies, fossils, and geological specimens, and I assumed a primary role in the museum’s environmental control. The project also gave me the chance to participate in two research projects: Effects of light on the fading of dyes on fur, and the impact that cleaning can have on furs previously treated with arsenic (pesticide).
What were the highlights of your experience?
The foremost highlight of my experience was working with taxidermies/furs and skeletons. This area of natural science conservation had always been a particular interest of mine, but I had never had the opportunity to explore it. Another highlight was my involvement in the repatriation of Maori skulls, skeletons, tattooed skins, and preserved heads. These human remains had been in the museum’s collection for over 100 years and were finally returned to their New Zealand patrons.
Where did you find inspiration?
My inspiration mostly came from within. Practicing conservation has been a passion of mine for a while, and doing so to the highest of standards is important to me. Therefore, laying down a strong foundation of knowledge would be essential. At the American Museum of Natural History, it was not difficult to keep this motivation alive. Having access to one of the world's most amazing collections was most satisfying. Having New York City at my fingertips was particularly inspiring!
What will you take away from this experience?
I have gained valuable practice-based knowledge that I intend to apply to my future practice as a conservator in Australia. I developed a new appreciation for the restoration of skins, taxidermies, feathers, fur and skeletons. I am also more confident in my ability to practice preventive conservation through environmental and pest control. My interaction with interdisciplinary museum staff has strengthened my skills in teamwork, networking, and effective communication.
What is your favorite piece of work that resulted from this experience?
I developed a strong affiliation for articulated skeletons. My favorite was an owl skeleton (Bupo virginianus) whose sclerotic ring (eye bone) had been broken into several parts. Reconstructing the bone and setting it back into the owl's eye socket was most enjoyable and satisfying.
What are you currently working on?
My internship ended 06/26/2015. The project I last worked on was the restoration of a trophy moose head (taxidermy). The specimen had undergone a restoration many years ago after having sustained a fall severely damaging its muzzle. The restoration was rather shoddy, implementing materials and practices considered inappropriate by today's standards. It was my task to reverse these repairs and restore the muzzle in a more acceptable manner. It required reconstruction of the underlying mannequin and overlying fur/skin and infilling areas of fur loss.
What is your vision for the future?
Although, formally undecided at this stage, I would like to explore other work or learning opportunities within the field of natural science conservation. At some stage, I would like to look into establishing a private conservation business of my own.
What advice would you give other artists aspiring to come to the US?
New York has such a vibrant art history and contemporary art scene. There is so much to see and do, it is hard to know where to start and end. Coming to the U.S. as part of the ISCP program however allowed me to really hit the ground running, to meet relevant people to my professional development, and feel supported in both developing my practice and engaging with all that the city has to offer.
[Interview: July 2015]