Why I Became A Conservator

Thursday, August 20, 2020
My Story
Michelle Crepeau, NCMM Conservator

My name is Michelle Crepeau and I am the museum conservator for the North Carolina Maritime Museum System (NCMM). You can find me in Beaufort where I care for the NCMM collections and provide interpretation and conservation demonstrations for visitors. How did I get here you may ask? Why did I become a conservator? The short answer is, I became a conservator because I couldn’t make up my mind.

I am the daughter of a history teacher, and my first books that were not picture books were historical novels and primers about Egyptology, Troy, and the Titanic. I also showed an early aptitude for science, for the investigative framework, for making connections, for answering the why, as well as the what. As a result, I never really knew what I wanted to do when I grew up, because choosing just one thing seemed impossible! Although I decided upon a STEM pathway when I began my undergraduate career at Bryn Mawr College in 2006, I found myself reverting to old habits and splitting my time between Biology and Art History. When it came time to pick a major, I decided to double major and pursue both! Despite some bemusement from peers and professors alike, I found an easy synthesis between the humanities and the sciences and started thinking about how I could combine them into a career.

Then came the discovery of Egyptian mortuary chamber KV63, which was my introduction to the field of conservation. The television documentary about the event featured archaeological conservator Dr. Nadia Lokma. Here was a person who got to go down into the Valley of the Kings and use her knowledge of wood science to safely handle, examine, and preserve the archaeology! What could be a cooler blend of my interests than the use of material science in the service of history or archaeology?

From then on, I was determined to become an archaeological conservator. The only problem was that I had no idea how to become one. At the time, my undergraduate college had no offerings in conservation, but I knew that I needed to attend a graduate-level training program and that those Master’s programs required pre-program experience. I spent a few years floundering, trying to find guidance and experience, cobbling together assistantships and jobs in special collections and art galleries, hoping to build a portfolio and network. I then began cold calling private conservators in my home state of Maine until finally one not only responded but was enthusiastic about setting me on my way. Thanks to their support I got my first real conservation opportunity, cleaning and rehousing prehistoric waterlogged wood for the Maine State Museum. Shortly thereafter, I was accepted for a three-month internship with the late Higgins Armory Museum in Worcester, Massachusetts, where I learned how to care for historic and archaeological metals, fabricate mounts, and even MIG-weld. Every experience only served to further confirm my interest in this line of work.

In 2013, I was put in touch with an acquaintance from undergrad who happened to be training as a conservator at Cardiff University in the U.K. I decided that this was the degree path for me, applied, was accepted, and in a few short months found myself on a plane to Wales. My training program was well-suited to my learning style. Hands-on and immersive, it was a perfect blend of theoretical study and practical application with a foundation in material science. One of the highlights of my program was a summer internship at the end of my first year. I was fortunate to join the conservation team at Çatalhöyük, an almost 7,000-year-old late Neolithic/Chalcolithic site in Turkey, where I got to enter a place of archaeological significance and handle, examine, and preserve a little bit of ancient human history!

After graduating with my MSc. in Conservation Practice in 2016, a friend recommended me for a fellowship at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in their archaeological materials lab. It was not only good professional experience but fulfilled a dream of mine that I have had since I was seven and visited the historic site on a family vacation. About nine months into my one-year fellowship, I applied for and was offered an IMLS grant-funded position with the QAR Project and NCMM.

For the next two and a half years, I demonstrated conservation on QAR artifacts for the public, developed educational programming and offered interpretation and public dialogue on QAR, underwater archaeology, and conservation in general from the platform of my very own demonstration lab. Last year, NCMM hired me permanently as the official conservator for their collections. Since then, I have expanded the capabilities of the lab to take on increasingly complex and varied conservation work while still providing public engagement and evolving the narrative capabilities of the QAR exhibit.

My path to becoming a conservator has been over ten years in the making. It has been meandering and sometimes frustrating; it owes a lot to the people I’ve been lucky enough to meet, and it is always evolving, but because of these things it has also been fulfilling and ultimately affirming that there are ways to combine all your quirky, disparate interests. That sometimes you don’t have to choose just one thing to love.

-Michelle working in the demonstration lab at NCMM. Image by NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.
-Michelle practicing color matching while a student at Cardiff University, 2015. Image by Michelle Crepeau. Used with permission.
-Block lifting a wall painting at Çatalhöyük, 2014. Left to right: Jerrod Seifret, Laurie King, and Michelle Crepeau. Image by Courtney Kemnitz. Used with permission.
-Michelle demonstrating the cleaning of a pewter plate to NCMM summer campers, 2019. Image by NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.