Megan Griffiths

In preparation for the launch of STEAM Girls, we’re excited to share an interview with museum conservation technician Megan Griffiths. Girl Museum’s own Museum Education Advisor, Hillary Hanel, interviewed Megan about the intersection of art and science in her career.

Hillary: First, tell us a little about your background in museum conservation.
Megan: After a long and winding road and much indecisiveness, I graduated from the University of Tulsa with a Bachelor of Arts in Art History.  I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my degree, but I knew I wanted to work in the museum field.  I was really curious about Art Conservation, but I knew it would be a lot of work to get into a program and I wasn’t sure if I would like it enough to invest the time and money.  As a compromise, I went to graduate school at the University of St Andrews and got my Masters in Museum and Gallery Studies.  I was able to do a condition survey on a rare book collection at the school’s library and I wrote my thesis on paper conservation.  The program allowed me to focus on the area I was interested in–conservation–while providing me with the basics I would need to work in a museum in any capacity.  When I graduated, I started looking for a job that would allow me to get the in lab conservation experience I would need to get into a conservation program, and I ended up as a conservation technician at the Gerald R. Ford Conservation Center in Omaha, NE.

The Ford Center is a division of the Nebraska State Historical Society, and we are a regional lab that offers services to museums, libraries and private individuals in the area.  We have a lab for paintings, paper, and objects.  Anyone who wants us to treat their artifacts, we can help them!

Hillary: How did you first develop an interest in museum conservation?  Did it start with a love of science, art, history, or something else?
Megan: My first memory of hearing about Art Conservation was watching the movie Ghostbusters II!  It wasn’t very accurate, but it definitely stuck with me as a kid. Then when I was 16, I was able to go on a class trip to France and Italy.  It was in 1999, so everyone was getting ready for the big Year 2000 celebrations and lots of buildings and works of art were being cleaned at that time.  That really interested me.  As a kid, I first wanted to be an artist, and then I wanted to be a paleontologist, so I always loved art and science.

Hillary: How do you have to combine the skills of a scientist and an artist throughout your work?
Megan: It’s really important for conservators (and technicians like me) to know about the materials they are working with.  For instance, they need to understand the solvents they use to clean art work, because they might want to remove the varnish from a painting, but they definitely don’t want to remove the paint!  They also have to know how the materials of the object itself interact with each other.  Or what types of adhesive will work best to put an object back together.  There is a lot to learn!  And conservators need a background in the arts because hand skills, drawing ability and color matching are really important when making repairs and filling losses.

Hillary: What has been your most challenging conservation project?
Megan: As a technician, I only work on pretty basic treatments.  I’m sort of like a nurse.  I can clean the wounds and put on a bandage, but I can’t perform major surgery.  When I was first hired, my main responsibility was cleaning metal objects from a sunken steam ship from 1865.  I had to remove an old protective coating that was put on when the objects were excavated in the 1970s, then I had to remove the rust that had accumulated, and then put a new coating on. Overall, I treated over 4000 objects in 3.5 years!  That was a pretty big challenge!

But my colleagues have had some challenging projects, especially working with modern materials.  Plastics are really difficult to work with because they degrade easily and there isn’t much we can do to stop it except keep it in the dark away from oxygen.  But that doesn’t work for objects you want to see and look at.  So we have to discuss with clients the limits of what their objects can handle.

Hillary: There has been a big push for STEM in schools recently.  What are your thoughts on adding the arts to make STEAM?
Megan: I love it!  The arts and sciences are both so important!  Not only do the arts offer so many wonderful things in life for us to enjoy, but the arts and sciences can complement each other.  Artists can use science to learn more about the materials they are using so they can make their artwork last longer for future generations to enjoy.  Or a dancer can use anatomy to understand how the body moves and how muscles work together.  The arts help you learn critical thinking and problem solving.  What scientist wouldn’t be helped with having new ways of looking at the world to help find that next great discovery?  Arts and sciences are mutually beneficial and help us understand the world around us!

Hillary: Do you have any crazy stories from working on artifacts and artworks?
Megan: When I was working on objects from the steamship, a lot of the items were containers than had held food.  Most of the food had been removed when the objects were excavated, but sometimes, things remained!  I once had to scrape remains of 150-year-old lard from a lard tin.  That was pretty gross!

Another fun story was when we had some clients bring in a couple bullets they believed were from the Civil War.  The bullets were inscribed with writing, but the letters were difficult to read, so the clients just wanted us to look at them under a microscope to see if we could figure out what they said.  As I was looking at them under a microscope, I noticed that both the bullets had holes in them with rounded piece of glass inside. Because I had been shown objects from the steamship collection that had a similar piece of glass, I knew that these were very small lenses.  I held one up to the light, and sure enough, there was a magnified image of a tiny photograph showing several Civil War monuments.  By looking at the images, we were able to confirm the inscription on the bullets!  It was really exciting to see because the clients hadn’t even noticed the lenses before and we were able to solve the mystery.

Hillary: If you could give one piece of advice to a little girl who loves both the sciences and the arts, what would you tell her?
Megan: There are so many opportunities out there for you!  Don’t let anyone discourage you from doing exactly what you want to do with your life, be it arts, science or both!  You never know how you might be able to incorporate one into the other and what amazing things might result.

And don’t be discouraged if you don’t yet know what you want to be when you grow up.  Not only is trying new things fun, but it is 100% ok to change your mind!

Hillary: Is there anything else you would like to share with the Girl Museum community?
Megan: There are so many fascinating women artists and scientists out there you can look to for inspiration.  They came from a wide variety of backgrounds and have great stories about how they got to do what they do.  These women literally changed the world, and you might, too!

Look forward to more STEAM Girl interviews, and be sure to visit STEAM Girls when it launches later this month!

-Hillary Hanel
Museum Education Advisor
Girl Museum Inc.

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