Evaluating conservation training at the Art Gallery of New South Wales

Case Studies


University of Melbourne


WIL student Grace Barrand shaping infills on the frame. Carlo Cignani, The Five Senses, c. 1670s, oil on canvas,carved gilt frame during treatment.

Evaluating conservation training at the Art Gallery of New South Wales

WIL position in frames conservation at the AGNSW provides unique experience for Masters student.

Working with disadvantaged and marginalised communities, perceptions of human rights, citizenship and equality are challenged and students are often transformed by the experience, leading to increased civic responsibility.

Dr Malgorzata Sawicki

Dr Malgorzata Sawicki

Head of Frames Conservation, Art Gallery of New South Wales

Carolyn Murphy

Carolyn Murphy

Head of Conservation, Art Gallery of New South Wales

Dr Marcelle Scott

Dr Marcelle Scott

Grimwade Centre, University of Melbourne

Grace Barrand

Grace Barrand

Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) and University of Melbourne (UoM)


Art conservation

Model/s of WIL activity

Industry/community based placement, Case studies, Industry/community based projects, Research activities

Description of WIL activity

This case-study examines a 12-month, pre-graduate position in frames conservation at the AGNSW that was awarded to a university student completing her final year of studies through remote and intensive learning blocks. The position focussed on a large frame conservation project, which provided an opportunity for senior frame conservators to work with and train an emerging conservator in a practice-based environment. The training was characterised by close mentorship, hands-on practice, wider team related activities and critical reflection, all of which was examined through a final master’s thesis to demonstrate the successful development of cognitive, practical and workplace skills.

How long has it been operating?

The AGNSW has been using WIL to train conservators for decades. Before formal conservation education existed in Australia, the AGNSW offered a 3-year cadetship in restoration, including yearly examinations and a final thesis. Although this program ceased in the 1970s, it left an institutional legacy that championed workplace training in specialist areas.

From 2013-2015, a traineeship in reproduction frame-making was offered to ensure ongoing access to frame-making skills with the imminent retirement of the AGNSW master. This traineeship was an upskilling opportunity for a staff member within an established program of theory and practice, and as this training did not exist elsewhere, represents AGNSW leadership and commitment to WIL.

More recently, a graduate was employed in the AGNSW time-based art conservation department to learn from the pioneering work being done in this emerging discipline. The graduate went on to upskill through part-time study while continuing to learn at work.

Finally, the frames conservation department has a strong history of creating entry-level, project-based contracts for graduates to learn from senior conservators. The above three areas are continually identified as highly specialised, requiring practical training solutions beyond the classroom. The AGNSW continues to meet these needs through the provision of WIL.

How does the WIL activity demonstrate good practice and/or innovation?

Conservation in Australia is taught at masters level. This university training instils an educational bedrock of knowledge breadth that prepares graduates for broad, changing, and currently unknown forms of professional practice. However, without a platform for further intergenerational practice-based training, the sector risks losing the wealth of cultural and material knowledge embedded in a retiring generation of practitioners. This is problematic as the need for deep specialisation and high-level hand skills has not disappeared.

This case-study explores the response of one institution to address a specific and critical need arising from the imminent retirement of an expert. It demonstrates good practice not only in its sustainable vision, but by its structural characteristics of practical and cognitive mentorship, scaffolded learning, risk-taking and mistake making. It is a forward-looking innovative training model that supports effective succession planning and fulfils a professional responsibility to the education and skills development of the sector. The research was awarded the Alexander Copland Award for advancing the theory and practice of conservation and was showcased as an exemplar to other industry organisations at the 2019 AICCM National Conference Skills Summit.

This case-study supports the view that industry and educational institutions require closer synergy. It demonstrates that extended WIL not only targets skill development but could be used to enhance the existing reciprocal relationship between industry leaders and educators to create new forms of WIL skills acquisition. Benefits to all parties are embedded in the model, and indicate its potential applicability and transferability to other specialist fields.

Who benefits from the WIL activity and how?

Students benefit through paid employment, industry work experience, and expert hands-on training. Proven benefits for alumni include enhanced employability and actual job outcomes. The AGNSW benefits from the work provided by the student, by being recognised as an industry leader in WIL, and a contributor to the system. Staff benefit through co-constructed learning, reflecting on practice, and connecting with university curricula. Mentors can gain professional development and industry CPD status recognition. The industry benefits by learning from the AGNSW model and being encouraged to implement similar solutions. The University gains from enhanced industry partnerships, WIL research pathways and training solutions.

How does the activity embed successful evaluation processes?

Five professional competencies were self-assessed against a novice-expert competency scale; knowledge, work standard, autonomy, coping with complexity, and context perception. Self-reflection was used to conceptualise muscle memory development. Pattern recognition was assessed by questionnaire whereby the style, era and materials of ten frames were described.

The case-study is an academically rigorous evaluation of a WIL model. The research supervisor was fundamental in guiding successful model examination and interpretation. Semi-structured interviews with two key staff members were also undertaken to identify the motivations, structure, outcomes and the future of AGNSW training, situating the framework firmly within WIL pedagogy.

What are the broader/longer term impacts for stakeholders?

More graduates enter the field with the experience, confidence and skills required to be a specialist conservator. The profession gains a proven model which can be adapted to various training needs. WIL may also help to increase sector diversity.

The AGNSW benefits by more effective succession planning. It also promotes the institution as a centre of excellence, thus attracting, upskilling and retaining quality employees. The UoM benefits as new pathways for learning are developed and WIL is championed, aligning with corporate objectives. The public benefit as culture is better maintained, an important factor in realising intergenerational equity to cultural assets.

How is the WIL activity integrated into curricula?

The compulsory UoM internship subject, completed prior to the WIL activity, prepared the student for the experience. WIL pedagogy, a focus of the subject readings, built a foundational understanding of the work-learning-reflection nexus.

During the case-study, the UoM supervisor supported the student to contextualise WIL activities, debrief on learnings, and inform the evaluation. Hurdle requirements and formal assessments tracked progress. Along with self-reflection by the author, industry hosts provided continuous, practical assessment. Thorough documentation of these assessments made explicit the key steps in the novice-expert competency scale.The final student output, the minor thesis, was externally examined by industry experts.

How is it informed by relevant theoretical or empirical literature, research and/or scholarship?

The case-study was the focus of a minor thesis and literature review. It is therefore informed by, and contributes to, scholarship in the area. Peer-reviewed sources focussed on skills audits, practice-based learning and WIL pedagogy.

What are the plans for the WIL activity in the future?

This work will continue to prompt the identification of skills gaps in the conservation profession. Recent examples of AGNSW WIL commitment include frame conservation, reproduction frame making and time-based art conservation. AGNSW recognises the specialist nature of the skills it requires and is committed to providing WIL opportunities where this is the best way to meet these needs.

As professions become increasingly complex, WIL opportunities offer a unique place in already crowded HE curricula. Following positive industry feedback plans are in development for similar WIL partnerships with other institutions and areas of specialisation across the broader sector.


Ashley-Smith, J 2016, ‘Losing the edge; the risk of decline in practical conservation skills’, Journal of the Institute of Conservation, 39(2), pp.119-132.

Cooper, L, Orrell, J and Bowden, M 2010, ‘Work integrated learning: a guide to effective practice’, Routledge.

Scott, M and Richardson, S 2011, ‘Preparing for practice: how internships and other practice-based learning exchanges benefit students, industry hosts and universities’, AICCM Bulletin, 32, pp.73-79.

WIL student Grace Barrand cleaning the frame. Carlo Cignani, The Five Senses, c. 1670s, oil on canvas, carved gilt frame during treatment.

AGNSW 8659. Photo: AGNSW, Felicity Jenkins, February 2017