My happy place: Sarah Hillary, gallery conservator

Sarah Hillary restoring a tanka painting that is on display at Auckland Museum. Photo / Supplied
Sarah Hillary restoring a tanka painting that is on display at Auckland Museum. Photo / Supplied

My happy place is my conservation studio at the Auckland Art Gallery.

My daily routine begins with a walk to town from Ponsonby (picking up a coffee on the way), a cheery hello from security and a walk up the grand staircase to the gallery's second floor and the room where I am based.

Painting and paper conservation are located in the attic spaces of the 19th century part of the building overlooking Kitchener Street, and objects conservation in the basement. My work station is in a small studio that previously housed an air-conditioning unit.

It is a beautiful little space, with west-facing windows at one end and skylight above. Since we moved into the gallery after the recent renovations, it has been improved and made more functional, with screens for hanging paintings on one wall and with moveable tables and storage units.

I treated the Thanka Painting here that is part of the new From the Summit exhibition at Auckland Museum. During the construction of Khunde Hospital in Nepal in 1966 they had some extra pieces of plywood and my father asked local artist Kappa Kalden to paint a mandala image onto one for him. The painting hung in my father's office where it was exposed to a lot of indirect sunlight and this accelerated the deterioration of the varnish.

Fortunately, the discoloured brown varnish could be removed without damaging the water-based paint layer, but it required very strong solvents and took some time and patience. It is wonderful to see the beautiful bright colours again.

I am the team leader for the conservation section but, as a painting specialist, I am responsible for the care and treatment of those items in the Auckland Art Gallery collection and on loan. We also run a conservation service for the public and other museums.

I work with a wonderful team of people who are very professional, hard working, challenging and fun. I have all the things - the microscopes, the specialist equipment, tools and materials - that I need to do my job well.

The light is excellent and I can see things really clearly, which is so important when detail is everything. I have all my research files and conservation books within reach, and the research library, gallery spaces, curators, photographers and other specialist staff are only a short walk away.

It takes a lot of dedicated people with specialist knowledge and expertise to make a museum that is world class.

Aucklanders are very fortunate to have such a significant collection, looked after by staff who care passionately about it and a wonderful new building that people love.


Sir Edmund Hillary's Thanka painting is on display as part of Auckland Museum's exhibition From the Summit - Hillary's Enduring Legacy. Sarah Hillary, and mountaineer Peter Cammell will speak at the museum on Wednesday at 7pm, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the first ascent of Everest. See aucklandmuseum.com, ph (09) 306 7048.

- Herald on Sunday

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