This is a guest post by Liz Peirce, an objects conservator in the Conservation Division of the Library of Congress. She works on a wide variety of materials and collections within the Library, including wooden artifacts, leather, metals, ceramics, plastics, and stone.
Can you tell us what you enjoy most about working for the Library of Congress and what makes it a unique experience?
First off, I’m amazed by the collection that is here! “You’ll never believe what came across my bench” has become my conversation opener. Whenever friends or family ask me what I’ve been up to, I get to say “I opened Sigmund Freud’s pocket watch” or “I examined the contents of Abraham Lincoln’s pockets from the night he was assassinated” or “I got to examine a copy of the Voyager gold record!” I have always been drawn by the stories that objects can tell, and I feel like every single item that has come to me since I’ve started has something new and interesting or unique about it, or has a whole archive of information associated with it. I’ve worked with some fantastic collections elsewhere, but the strong connection to person, place, or time has never felt as present to me as it does here.
Secondly, I feel like the mentality surrounding access to collections is different in a library versus in a museum. I feel like there is an innate separation between collections and visitors in traditional art institutions. You come to see the art as a guest who has been granted temporary access to the wonders on display. When I think of the Library, and the objects that I’m working with, that distance feels much smaller. Yes, an object may go on display, but when it’s returned to its division, it becomes a research tool. There’s an automatic assumption that the purpose of these objects is for use by researchers to continue to inform the public. I really love the idea that our collection is here to serve.
What past personal, professional, or academic experiences led you to your specialty?
I ended up stumbling across art conservation when I was applying to colleges. I had always been interested in art and art history, and found out about art conservation during an accepted students’ day at the University of Delaware. I switched my major from art history to art conservation immediately! During internships during my undergraduate career, I found that I loved the variety and challenges that come up with objects conservation. Objects ends up being such a broad catch-all category covering basically anything that isn’t a book, photo, painting, textile, or work of art on paper – although there is overlap with each specialty. Since starting at the Library I’ve had to treat wax then bounce to repairing glass and then pivot the next day to plastics. It’s a new puzzle every day. Once I knew I wanted to work with that kind of variety, I worked a few pre-graduate program internships in conservation and completed my graduate training at an objects conservation program at University College London in London, England. It’s given me the opportunity to work with a wonderful variety of institutions and collections.
Are there any upcoming projects you are excited for (or a favorite project you have worked on in the past)?
This is a tough question! I have a bad habit of my favorite project being the one that I’m working on at the moment, but many stick out in my mind! Currently, I am treating a number of pre-Columbian ceramics in the collection for the new Early American galleries (you can read more about the amazing work to prepare these galleries for these new objects here). There are some incredible works of art in the collection and I am continually amazed by the age of some of the pieces. As someone who was working with decorative arts and furniture from the 18-19th century before joining the Library, holding a ceramic from 900 AD is a little awe inspiring. My favorite piece was this turtle vase. The turtle finial has the most serene look on its face, and the body of the vase is so thin and delicate.
(Other favorite projects – researching the history of a bugle and drum from the U.S. Civil War at the Library, assessing and rehousing the cuneiform collection from AMED (Asian and Middle Eastern Division), cleaning of in situ sculpture and artwork using a 26’ scissor lift at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, conserving a couch that once belonged to General Lafayette at Historic New England, figuring out which Louis XIV side table was a copy at the Wallace Collection in London, England… I’ve gotten to do some really fun things!)
Do you have any advice for aspiring object conservators?
I really recommend joining the Emerging Conservation Professionals Network in AIC. The network is invested in getting people introduced to the field, understanding what might be needed to prepare for graduate programs, and posting paid internship opportunities for up-and-coming conservators. They have liaisons with each school and have local branches across the U.S. If you have the opportunity, talk with conservators in your area to get a sense of the field, what a normal work day looks like, and to hear about what it took to get where they are now. It’s a really challenging but rewarding field; I genuinely can’t imagine what else I would want to do for a career. I’m happy to talk to anyone who’s considering becoming an objects conservator!
Do you have any hobbies or passions you pursue outside of work?
Outside of work I have a couple of hobbies that I really enjoy. I picked up knitting after I finished grad school and beyond knitting hats, scarves, and mittens, I participated in the 2019 Tempestry Project: Philadelphia Collection at the Schuylkill Center in Philadelphia. I knit the year 1885 to help illustrate how temperature has changed over time in the Philadelphia area. Besides knitting, I love to bake. While I love making brownies and sweet breads, I had to refocus my baking energies during the pandemic when I could no longer foist my excess baked goods on coworkers. Like many pandemic bakers, I got into sourdough when one of my best friends shipped me some of her starter during lock down and I have been hooked on making loaves ever since. Sourdough is simultaneously the most rewarding and the most humbling baking I’ve ever done. There is nothing like the high of making a perfect loaf, or quite like the utter disappointment when you’ve baked a bread pancake. If I’m not baking or knitting, I’m reading, which I think is pretty fitting for someone who works at the largest library in the world. I’ve set myself the task of reading all of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld – I’m up to Raising Steam (number 40), and am in book clubs outside of work. I enjoy stories in general, not just the ones associated with objects!
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