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Why this woman gets paid to preserve precious letters

Posted by
Hannah Keegan
Published

Work/Life is Stylist’s regular column about the professional routines of successful women. Meet Barbara Borghese, conservator at The Postal Museum.

Barbara Borghese is a conservator at The Postal Museum in London. She lives in London with her husband and son. 

My alarm goes off… 

At 6.30am but it usually takes me 15 minutes to wake up and get out of bed. Then I shower and wake my son up. Most days, I wear something comfortable under my lab coat, like silky trousers and a blouse. My husband makes breakfast every morning, usually cappuccinos with croissants, fruit and yogurt. I drop my son at school then get the Tube to work.

I’m responsible for…

The preservation and conservation of the collections at The Postal Museum. I assess and then restore the works the museum acquires. The tough decisions come when I have to say no to a piece that a curator is really passionate about. I mentor the students that work in the lab with us, too.

I got the job… 

By studying to be a conservator. I’m Italian, so I grew up around art and ruins – I went to museums and galleries every weekend. It felt like a natural extension for me. I trained in Italy but my first job was at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Since then, I’ve worked for Historic Royal Palaces and at the British Library. I started working at The Postal Museum a few years before it opened in 2017.

Some items can take months to restore

My typical day… 

Sees me arrive at the office around 9am. The museum opens at 10am so I try to get as much done in the galleries as I can before the public arrive. Then I sort through emails and prepare notes for any meetings with different departments, such as marketing. Then I prep the lab for the objects I have scheduled for treatment. We use different chemicals to restore them as best we can. It’s a delicate process. I approach each piece like a doctor would a patient. I do an initial assessment and then come up with a treatment plan, but sometimes there is nothing we can do. Some pieces take days to complete, some months.

I work with one other conservator. Depending on the size of the exhibition, we can be working through hundreds of pieces at one time. For the last exhibition, we assessed 200 letters that had been retrieved from a ship that had sunk to the bottom of the ocean during the Second World War.

I grab lunch from nearby Exmouth Market around 1.30pm, then I’ll take a walk before going back to the office. From 2.30pm, it’s like a revolving door of people asking for updates. I often advise curators on whether the acquisition of a new work is risky or not. I leave at 5pm.

My most memorable moment… 

Was the day the museum opened. I was involved from the very start, so it was amazing to finally see people come through the doors.

It’s a delicate job so various tools are required 

The worst part of my job…

Is the admin, like budgeting and writing quotes for projects. I hate it.

The best part of my job… 

Is the thrill of opening a package for the first time. You never know what you’re going to get.

After work… 

I do my son’s homework with him, it’s one of my favourite parts of the day. I’ll cook dinner, usually Italian but I’m working my way through the new Ottolenghi cookbook at the moment. I take a brisk walk with my husband afterwards. Then I’ll unwind with Netflix before bed. I’m asleep by 11pm.

Images: Holly McGlynn

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Hannah Keegan

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