Piecing together the past is a labour of love

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 August, 2011, 12:00am


Name: Paul Harrison

Job: Conservator/archaeological scientist

Where did you go to school?

In Leicestershire (England).

When did you decide to pursue a career in heritage conservation?

At about the age of eight I found out about archaeologists. They seemed to have an exciting life: they went to rainforests and deserts, and found lost civilisations and treasure. I thought that's it, I'm going to be an archaeologist. Later I learned lots of universities produced archaeology graduates, but few got a job. When they did they spent most of their time writing. But an aunt who was a lecturer at King's College London asked a PhD student at the Institute of Archaeology to show me around. So I visited the institute and fell in love with conservation. Conservators get to handle relics all day. I was pretty good at chemistry as well as history, so I thought this was ideal for me. I got in to the institute - now part of University College London. I came to Hong Kong to work for the museum service in 1996 with a master's degree in archaeo-metallurgy. I was head of metals conservation at government museums.

What was your best assignment?

I did three summers as a volunteer in Greece, where I conserved what my colleagues say is the oldest statue of Zeus in the world. It's made of ivory and gold but was destroyed 3,500 years ago. The first year I went, 1990, the legs were found broken into 200 pieces of ivory and about 70 pieces of gold. Myself and an American friend, Professor Mark Moak, made it as complete as possible. It's now on display in a museum in Crete.

What is the key to success?

Dedication, keeping an open mind and being flexible. Honesty is also very important. Because I get so intimate with an object, I can change it but it's best to work within professional guidelines.

What's the best thing about your job?

I don't really have a job, I have a hobby. I go to my hobby every day, to look at antiques. I get to handle antiques all day and improve them.

What is the most important thing you have learned?

With all the methods I know for treating different historical objects, I can look at most items and see how they were made. You really get to appreciate the craftsmanship of the past, because I have to follow them [when making repairs]. That's a real eye-opener. When other people are looking at old things, I guess they are mainly seeing an object, but I'm often having to copy them and to use their skills to make the object better.

How important is historical conservation?

Recently, we saw fury over the demolition of Queen and Star Ferry piers, so I think people are becoming more appreciative of conservation. And heritage is a resource like anything else - it can also be destroyed and so I'm doing my best to keep it going for the next generation.

Is there anything that you would like to work on?

I'd like to work on a shipwreck one day before I become an artefact myself.

What is your advice to people interested in this field of work?

There aren't many jobs that come up and there aren't many places that teach it. If you're really dedicated you'll stay in come what may and I hope that the times will improve.

What qualifications do you need?

My course at the institute no longer exists, but you can study archaeological conservation at Cardiff. Hong Kong University offers a master's in building conservation and from that you can pursue further qualifications. The Hong Kong government is a big employer of conservators, and takes chemistry graduates.

University of Hong Kong offers a bachelor's in architectural studies, a master's programme in architecture, an MSc in conservation and a postgraduate diploma in conservation (http://fac.arch.hku.hk/content.asp?L1=100)History and chemistry courses are also useful in this field.

For HKU programmes, visit http://www0.hku.hk/history/ and http://chem.hku.hk/chemhome/index_home.php; and for University of Science and Technology, visit http://www-chem.ust.hk/ and http://huma.ust.hk/course/ug2011spring_offering.html