Interview with Rachael Purse

Rachael Purse is a PhD Candidate at The Glasgow School of Art on the ‘Bringing Back the Mack’ Scholarship which focuses on The Glasgow School of Art Mackintosh Library after the fire in 2014. As part of the process, she is recording and providing critical reflection on the restoration process, as well as the changing use of space within the building and contemporary conservation practices and ethics.

Part of the Mackintosh library in detail.

What is your subject and how did you get involved?

I’m researching the ongoing restoration of Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh Building after the fire of 2014 damaged the buildings west wing and destroyed numerous historic interiors. I’m now in my second year and am thoroughly enjoying myself. I applied for the Glasgow School of Art and Historic Environment Scotland funded Bringing Back the Mack Scholarship in 2016, and was lucky enough to be successful. I was working at Glasgow City Heritage Trust when I applied for the Scholarship on a conservation project for Glasgow City Council, but my contract was coming to an end and I was searching for what to do next. I knew I wanted to continue working with built and cultural heritage, and I had been thinking about doing a PhD since my undergraduate degree. The Scholarship came at the perfect time for me, and it’s both incredibly exciting and nerve wracking to be working on this massive project.

Rachael taking a tour around the GSA Library.

Tell us a more about the practical nature of your project……

What I love most about this PhD is that the project I’m studying is happening right now, and having access to this historic project in real-time is a real privilege. As well as archival research and field work, I’m often onsite watching the building change.  Attending design team meetings, and talking to lots of people with expertise in a variety of reasons, from project managers to geologists, is as much a part of my research as sitting in the archives or the library is. I am aiming to contextualise the fire and subsequent restoration of the Mackintosh Building, investigating the history of conservation in Scotland, as well as looking to the future and exploring what we should be doing next. What can we learn from the fire and from the project that can have a positive impact on the way we care for our shared cultural heritage? These are big questions for a big project and I am enjoying answering them.


Architectural conservation is traditionally a male dominated area but your team is comprised of several women. What’s it like to work in such an sector?

Liz Davidson and Sarah Mackinnon are the Project Managers of the restoration, and my supervisor at the GSA is Dr Robyne Calvert. Theirs is one female stone mason on site, and the lead architect on the Library restoration, arguably the most well-known room in the building, is Natalia Burkowska, and there are many more women from archivists to conservators working together to restore the Mack. It’s amazing that so many women are a part of this project and are leading the way, it’s very inspiring. I feel empowered and confident walking around onsite in my high-vis and hardhat. However, I would love to see even more equality in the construction sector, especially working with traditional materials, but I think we are headed in the right direction.

Rachael speaking the Engine Shed in October. Image by Dr. Robyne Calvert

What is the most rewarding aspect of your research?

Every day I learn something new, and I never want that to stop. I enjoy the complicated nature of the project and the research, and untangling the various strands is immensely satisfying, I love mind-maps and lists. The sheer scale of this project can sometimes be a bit overwhelming, and I feel lucky every day that I’m a part of it. I think the most rewarding thing of all though is that I will always be able to say that I had a (small) part to play in the restoration of the Mackintosh Building.


Any advice to surviving your second year of your PhD?

Take time off! It is so important to find space for your life outside of your research. I relax by reading novels which take me elsewhere, I’m going through a horror obsession at the minute. I also make sure my work-space is comfortable and welcoming, I light candles or have an aromatherapy diffuser puffing away whilst I work. Doing a PhD is an incredibly intense experience and looking after your mental health should be your number one priority. Sleep and eat well, get outside in the fresh air and make time for yourself.


Interview by Karen Mailley-Watt

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