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CCI Newsletter, No. 24, November 1999
Helen Diana Burgess, 1951-1999
Helen Diana Burgess (known as Diana to her family and Helen to her colleagues) passed away in August, leaving an outstanding legacy to the field of conservation.
Helen was born and raised in Lethbridge, Alberta, where she attended St. Basil's and Catholic Central Schools. She earned an Honours B.Sc. from the University of Lethbridge, and a M.Sc. in protein chemistry from the University of British Columbia, working under Dr. Michael Smith (who went on to win the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1993). It was here that she learned some of the techniques and methodology that she went on to apply in the field of conservation science. Her first real introduction to conservation came in 1976, when she was accepted as a student in the Research stream of the Master of Art Conservation (M.A.C.) program at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Working under the direction of Dr. Jim Hanlan, her interest quickly became focused on the chemistry and degradation of cellulose. She earned an M.A.C. in Science in 1978 and was hired by the Conservation Processes Research Division of the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) the same year.
Helen presented the results of her M.A.C. research ("The effect of bleaching on cellulose; the damage caused, and what this means in conservation") at the annual conference of the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works - Canadian Group (IIC-CG) in 1979. That presentation marked the beginning of Helen's public career as a conservation scientist whose strengths lay in remarkable clarity of thought, presentation, and analysis. Major research projects that she coordinated include investigation of archival tapes, chemical stabilization of paper with borohydrides, use of enzymes in conservation, mass-deacidification, and development of recommendations for alkaline washing. Over the course of her career, Helen published more than 37 articles in conservation publications in Canada and around the world.
In the early 1990's, at the height of her career as a conservation scientist, Helen became seriously ill, which led her to take early retirement from her position as a Senior Conservation Scientist at CCI. At the time of her retirement, Helen had just begun work on a project to investigate the characteristics of permanent paper.
Helen's contribution to the field of conservation, especially that of paper conservation, is immeasurable. Not only was she a rigorous scientist, she served on numerous committees and professional associations. Helen was an editor of the Journal of the IIC-CG for many years. She had a fine aesthetic sense, which served her both in her profession and hobbies. Helen loved paper and textiles, flowers, beautiful ceramics and glass, and cats. She was often teased by her friends for picking flowers wherever she could find them, including, in one instance, the Faculty Club garden at Queen's. Helen enjoyed painting flowers, and donated several of her watercolours to the Lupus Society.
Helen's work has had a real effect within the conservation profession, and has changed the materials that conservators use and how they use them. CCI's current reputation as one of the leading researchers in the field of paper and textile conservation is due in large part to her contributions. But perhaps the greatest legacy of all is that there are heritage collections around the world that will survive for future generations thanks to Helen's work.
At the time of her retirement, the conservation community lost a valued colleague, and it is with profound sadness that this loss must now be accepted as final. Helen will be remembered by her friends and colleagues with deep affection and admiration for her kindness, intelligence, talent, and steadfast dedication to the field of conservation. She will be greatly missed.