To celebrate International Women’s Day, we’re featuring a few of the talented and brilliant women who are behind Alberta’s favourite museums and heritage sites. These women show girls it’s possible to follow their dreams in any field.
Meet Alison Freake, a conservator at the Provincial Archives of Alberta, Alwynne Beaudoin, director of natural history at the Royal Alberta Museum, Lisa May, objects conservator at the Royal Alberta Museum and Lorna O’Brien, head technician at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology.
What do you do in your job?
I focus on archival preservation, which means that I am responsible for the physical condition of our archival records, including conservation treatment. I represent the Provincial Archives of Alberta at public events and increase awareness of preservation within the Government of Alberta. I often answer questions about treatment and storage options for objects people have at home or in their institutions’ collections.
I manage 36 people who work in eight curatorial programs in the natural history section at the museum. This includes botany, invertebrate zoology, Quarternary paleontology, and ornithology. It is also home to the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute’s processing centre. My work encompasses research, taking care of the collections and public outreach. I’m currently working away at a few research projects I’ve been involved with for years.
I preserve objects and specimens in the museum collection for exhibition or storage. This includes object examinations with written and photographic documentation, conservation treatments, monitoring collection locations for environmental and pest data, assisting with mount designing or construction, and helping with installation of exhibitions.
I oversee the day-to-day running of the museum fossil preparation laboratories and field programs. I work with the technicians and researchers who go into the field to find new fossils, collect them and then work on preparing them in the lab. Our technicians are highly skilled professionals who can remove rock from millimetre-sized fossils under a microscope, to using large tools to remove rock from large dinosaur skeletons.
What’s your favourite thing about where you work?
Every day is different – I never really know what each day will bring. Some days I have to solve very specific conservation problems related to the archival materials from the Provincial Archives’ holdings – and that could be anything from maps and glass plate negatives to books or photographs.
I absolutely love the museum. I strongly believe that museums are important, and as curators, we look after things on behalf of Albertans and create a forum for discussion. I am fascinated by this role of stewardship and continuity, and I want to expand on the materials and hand them off to the next person in the chain in the same or even better condition. This makes the museum like a living organism. I work with wonderful people who are all doing exciting things in their fields, and it’s energizing to be a part of. We are the caretakers of Alberta’s history!
My favourite thing about working as a conservator at the RAM (Royal Alberta Museum) is the diversity of my work. One day, I may be performing gallery maintenance such as vacuuming an airplane and the next day, I could be testing methods on various materials, doing a conservation treatment in the laboratory or installing objects in a new exhibition.
I work everyday with a group of passionate, creative and dynamic people. The museum obviously attracts staff who are interested in paleontology, but more than that, they are people who genuinely love what they do, from spending years working on the preparation of one fossil, to the creation of new galleries and coming up with innovative ways to engage our audiences.
What advice do you have for girls interested in pursuing careers in your field?
Take a variety of courses to find what inspires you. I completed a degree in Archaeology/Physical Anthropology but with a minor in Biology, and I can honestly say that all of my courses have proven useful over time.
Be persistent! Believe that you can get into the field and don’t let anyone tell you what you can’t do. Sometimes the obstacles can seem unsurmountable but you just have to keep going. You don’t have to be the most brilliant academically. It’s more important to be passionate, work hard and get along with people. At the end of the day, our hard work is motivated by the mission to give back to people.
I would advise anyone interested in pursuing conservation as a career to work as often as you can with your hands on as many different materials you can get! Conservators work with their hands daily and encounter a variety of different materials through interacting with objects or utilizing materials in conservation treatments or exhibition mounts. With a knowledge of various materials, including how you can manipulate them, conservation would be a very satisfying career choice!
My advice is to follow your interests and take opportunities when they come. I grew up in rural Ireland and palaeontology was not on my radar as a kid, but I always had a strong interest in the natural world and took all the science subjects offered in school. For my Ph.D., I had the opportunity to work on one of the world’s most famous fossil sites, the Burgess Shale in the Yoho National Park. Moving to Canada was challenging and I didn’t know if I could turn my passion for palaeontology into a long-term career. The opportunity to work as a technician at the Royal Tyrrell Museum allowed me to combine all my interests and have a very fulfilling job. It’s good to know what your career goals are, but if you’re flexible and not too focused on the end result, you’ll be open to great opportunities along the way.
You can check out the work of these fabulous four women at our historic sites and museums.