Robin Mills met Jenny Halling Barnard at the Dorset History Centre, Dorchester
‘My Mum and Dad met in Botswana where they were both teaching. Dad’s Danish and Mum’s a Bristolian. They both have itchy feet and love travelling, and I think some of that has rubbed off on me. They returned to Denmark where they had my sister, and then a year later to Bristol where I arrived. When I was 9 we left Bristol for Chard, and I haven’t lived anywhere longer than four years since then.
At 12 we moved to Weymouth, where Dad taught Design and Technology and Mum Business Studies. I’ve inherited my Dad’s abysmal memory and I tend to look back on events with rose-tinted glasses, but I remember my childhood being wonderful. Dorset was a constant throughout our moves as my Grandma had a caravan in Charmouth, where we spent glorious, sunny holidays with the extended family and friends. Even now going to the Saturday market in Bridport is nostalgic, reminiscent of childhood holidays.
From Weymouth we moved to Hong Kong, which I remember being amazing and awful in equal measure. I wasn’t prepared for the massive culture shock; there was no internet in those days to research our new home, and at the time I didn’t fully appreciate the amazing opportunities that would be open to me. We arrived in 1996, just before the hand-over to China. I remember an exodus of British residents and the People’s Liberation Army moving their tanks to the border, and wondering what my parents were thinking bringing us here! Hong Kong is dynamic, full of life, but is also quite claustrophobic, so we travelled most holidays, visiting amazing countries and meeting fascinating people. After a year my sister left for university, which was heart-breaking at the time—she was my constant through all the moving—but a year later I followed her to the UK, to study Ancient History and Archaeology.
I have always loved history; there was a fantastic history teacher at school, who encouraged my interest. I have fond memories of watching Indiana Jones films when I was really young, my imagination fired by the mysteries of the ancient world and its artefacts. So at university I was in my element and had a wonderful three years in Liverpool, which was such a welcoming, friendly city. Unfortunately when I left, like many of my peers, I couldn’t get a steady paid job in archaeology. After a year of temping, I did a Master’s degree in Care of Collections at Cardiff, specialising in preventative conservation, and began volunteering with the National Trust at Tyntesfield House, near Bristol. This was a new acquisition then, a massive restoration project not yet open to the public. It’s a vast Victorian Gothic Revival mansion, and whilst I don’t normally believe in the supernatural, working alone in the nursery filled with Victorian dolls and rocking horses which was slightly reminiscent of a classic horror movie set, was a little unnerving; especially when I was required to stay over one night. Despite that sleepless experience, I applied for a paid job there, and although unsuccessful, the Trust offered me a post at Montacute House in Somerset as a conservation assistant. My role was the preventative conservation of Montacute and the Trust’s other South Somerset properties including Tintinhull and Lytes Carey. As a book lover my favourite job was cleaning the books in the library. One day Caroline Bendix, book conservation specialist for the Trust, came to Montacute. I was fascinated with everything about her work and whilst I loved my job, longed for a more hands-on approach to books. She offered me work experience and for two weeks that summer I carried out cleaning and minor paper and leather repairs to beautiful volumes at Codrington Library at All Souls College in Oxford, which was a fantastic experience. I enrolled at a book-binding course in Wellington with an inspirational tutor, and Caroline suggested I applied to do a two-year course in book conservation at West Dean College near Chichester.
West Dean offers some amazing courses—expensive, but the college is good at finding help with funding—such as conservation of metals and ceramics, and making of clocks and musical instruments. It was an inspiring environment to learn in; all the 60 students were there because they were passionate about their specialism and were absorbed in developing their skills and knowledge. The workshops were open from 7am to 11pm and we were catered for, so didn’t have to worry about household chores—although everyone put on about two stone in their first term because the food was so good. Whilst sometimes a little insular it was great to be surrounded by people who were like-minded about conservation and craft, and to be able to collaborate across the specialisms, for example the metals department would advise on treatments if we had a corroded book clasp. I also met my future husband Daniel there, who was on the musical instrument course, making the viola de gamba.
Through the Institute of Conservation I was offered an internship at North Yorkshire County Record Office, on a project partnered with Whitby Museum. In the course of building repairs at the Merchant Seamen’s Hospital in Whitby, bundles of papers, later discovered to be muster rolls, were found in the attic. The rolls recorded the crew of each ship that sailed from Whitby from 1747 to the 1800s. The records included names, ages, where the individuals lived, and previous ships they’d served on; there was a really poignant column for those who fell ill or died on board ship. We thought there were about 4000 documents all bundled up, but there turned out to be over 8000, so it became a production line conservation job, with help from a team of volunteers, who we trained in cleaning and paper repairs. From the muster rolls we were able to trace the naval career of James Cook, from his first voyage as an apprentice to that of master, before embarking on his world-famous career. In some cases we used a technique called leaf-casting, which is taking very fine paper pulp and filling in areas lost through mould damage, to make the document more stable. The rolls were digitised, and a team of volunteers are still transcribing them.
Whilst living in Yorkshire, Daniel and I were married at the Guildhall in Lyme Regis, on a beautiful day, with the ceremony followed by pasties on the beach. We longed to move to the south west, but conservator jobs are few and far between and when my internship ended I was offered a job in Durham. We had been there for over two years, when the post of Archive Conservator came up at the Dorset History Centre in Dorchester, which holds the written history of the county dating from 965. Although not a full-time post, and I had loved working in Durham, we felt this might be our only opportunity to move south. Fortunately I was successful; I work three days a week for the History Centre, and have to externally fund the other two days. On the up side I receive a wonderful variety of external work, including individual’s family bibles, beautiful estate maps from Lord Shaftesbury, and fascinating Admiralty maps from the Hydrographic Office in Taunton.
My work encompasses so many aspects I’ve always loved; understanding the science behind the composition of materials I’m working with, their processes of deterioration over time and how to arrest them; the history that is evidenced by the documents; and the craft skills required to work with intricate and delicate documents. It’s a joy and a privilege to conserve a historic object and think about the skills of the craftsperson who made it, and to play a part in preserving it for future generations.
We love living in Dorset, and now that we’re in the south west Daniel has made me promise that we won’t move again for at least five years. Fortunately I definitely don’t have itchy feet yet.’