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Sylvia wearing purple latex gloves and looking through a magnifying lens at a painting.

New conservator joins the Chau Chak Wing Museum team

26 May 2021
Introducing Silvia Da Rocha
Passionate about natural history, Museum Conservator Silvia Da Rocha has worked all over the world and has recently come home to Sydney to care for our collections.

After packing up her life in Dublin, Silvia Da Rocha flew into Sydney in early 2021. Joining us from the National Museum of Ireland, the Chau Chak Wing Museum’s new Conservator came on board in April. After giving her a chance to catch her breath and explore our vast collections, we chatted with Silvia about her new role, areas of expertise and favourite projects from throughout her career. 

What is museum conservation?

Sylvia wearing purple latex gloves and holding a spherical glass object.

Silvia: Conservators are trained to handle and repair museum objects. We do this by knowing and understanding materials very well and knowing how and why an object will degrade or be damaged. We take a very respectful approach to museum object repair. We are more concerned with preserving the object as it is, with all the evidence of its past and history, instead of making something look like new. We also advise on things like the museum environment, object loans, object handling… anything related to keeping an object safe!

Do you specialise in any particular area of conservation? 

Silvia: I specialised in objects during my masters and started very early on in my career focusing on natural history objects. When you specialise in objects, you treat everything from archaeology to fashion collections. I have found undertaking treatments on working with natural history specimens has allowed me to undertake normal, everyday treatments like inpainting and infilling, but it’s also opened up opportunities to explore new types of treatment of tricky organic materials.

Can you describe one conservation project that was especially important to you?

Silvia: There have been so many great projects! But I’ll always have a soft spot for the treatment of the Macquarie Collector’s Chest. It’s a collector’s cabinet assembled by the man himself, convict-built with Australian Cedar, with beautiful paintings by (we think) Joseph Lycett, and full of Natural natural History history and ethnographic curios. It’s just a huge convergence of things I love interacting with and I got to treat certain portions of it for the State Library. The case also has strong links to Scotland, as it was sent there for some time to be kept in a big castle, in a place called Strathallan, which ended up being quite prophetic because I moved to Scotland for an ICON internship soon after I took on the treatment - eventually visiting Macquarie’s birthplace on the Isle of Mull.

An image of the Macquarie Collector's chest, with the top panels unfolded to show detailed paintings on the inside of the panels and a display of insects under glass.

Macquarie Collector's Chest, ca. 1818. Image used with permission from the collections of the State Library of New South Wales, FL3268446. 


What are you excited about in your new role at the Chau Chak Wing Museum?

Silvia: The Chau Chak Wing Museum seems custom-made for me and I am loving every moment. I feel like every one of my past interests, studies and obsessions are represented here. It’s an excellent mix of Australian and European history, representing a specific point in history in, I think, an interesting and respectful way. I actually used to visit the Macleay and Nicholson museums whilst studying my art history undergraduate degree at UNSW, so this also feels like coming home to me.

Any advice for people interested in getting into conservation?

Silvia: I became a conservator after doing a Master of Arts in Cultural Material Conservation at the University of Melbourne. If you want to do conservation you need to undertake specific study eventually, but your path to conservation can be so varied. Studying in Melbourne, I met people who had arrived at that course via archaeology, journalism and music. My best advice if you’re thinking about conservation is to study your interest, collect your skills and experiences, and then study conservation so you can be as close as possible to the thing you love.


Follow Silvia on Twitter: @ConservatorAhoy

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