Surrounded by plastic-draped boxes of artifacts, Alyssa Becker-Burns examines a small fossil. Her nimble hands, protected by blue latex gloves, gently inspect the piece for signs of contamination.
Becker-Burns’ research lab is in an 82-year-old building across from the Royal Saskatchewan Museum (RSM). The brick structure was originally the Saskatchewan Government Telephones head office.
“The lab was moved in here temporarily in the 1980s,” Becker-Burns said, and it has remained there ever since.
It’s fitting Becker-Burns has spent the last 10 years working in a designated heritage building, since her life revolves around preserving artifacts for future generations.
Becker-Burns didn’t dream about becoming a conservator as a child; she didn’t know such a profession existed. It wasn’t until an art instructor in high school suggested she could combine her two passions of art and science into a career, that she contemplated conservation.
After high school, Becker-Burns enrolled in the Alberta College of Art and Design. While studying fine arts, she was introduced to textiles and fell in love. She completed a study program under private textile conservator, Gail Naiinimaa, and was inspired to follow in Naiinimaa’s career path.
In 1997, Becker-Burns graduated with a Bachelor in Fine Arts, majoring in textile fiber. Five years later, she completed a Masters of Textile Science with an emphasis on textile conservation at the University of Alberta.
When she graduated, Becker-Burns was selected for the Mellon-Fellowship in textile conservation, which took her to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
A year later, the Alberta-native moved to New York City to do another fellowship at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.
“It was a bit of a switch. I was still doing a bit of material testing, but it was all temporary exhibits so it was a bit of a different pace for me working towards that as opposed to a permanent exhibit. I was also working with the different collection of decorative arts and materials,” said Becker-Burns.
She returned to Canada to work as a mount-maker at the Royal Ontario Museum, and 10 years ago this month, she started in her current position as conservator at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum.
“At that time, I felt like I was ready to oversee a collection,” she said. “I had (gained) experience with objects far beyond textiles, and I wanted to be able to stay with a collection long enough to see some of the long-term improvements that could be made.”
No two days are the same for Becker-Burns. Some days, she gets fossils ready to ship overseas. Other days, she cleans artifacts. Her latest project has her testing taxidermy pieces for arsenic, which used to be used as a preservative.
“If we get new (artifacts), then they need to be documented,” she explained. “Sometimes things need treatment, where you’re actually fixing or cleaning, not for the purpose of making something look new again, but just in terms of trying to keep it stable for longer, or if cleaning will help with the interpretation of the object,” she said.
The problem-solving aspect of properly preserving the artifacts is Becker-Burns’ favourite part of the job.
“There’s that grey area where you have to talk with the curator who knows the story, or the community to talk about what is important about this piece and what it is that we want to hang onto,” said Becker-Burns.
Each day at the RSM brings a new challenge, and Becker-Burns said her job preserving the past is integral to the future.
“I think it becomes quite crucial to take care of these items as best you can and not interfere with them so much, so you are leaving a legacy down the road.”