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Catching up with Dr. Bronwyn Hughes

The ISS Institute caught up with Dr Bronwyn Hughes at the Melbourne Polytechnic in Prahran to discuss what she has been up to since her Fellowship in 1994.

Q: Who are you, what did you study in your Fellowship, and where do you currently work?

These days I see myself as an art historian, specialising in Australia’s stained glass but in 1993 when I applied for an ISS (no Institute then) Fellowship, I was a senior lecturer in glass at Monash University. I had recognised the lack of any formal training in conservation of architectural glass in Australia, and the few people working in the fields were self-taught over decades, and rapidly approaching retirement.

I was able to undertake my ISS Fellowship with the support of Monash University and travelled to the USA, Britain and France to research best practice in conservation of stained glass. I carefully selected a range of conservation workshops and studios, some within large institutions (such as the Victoria & Albert Museum, London and Metropolitan Museum, New York) but contrasted their experiences with sole operators and private practitioners. The skills and knowledge of art historians, artists, conservators and technicians were all valuable for the different perspectives on their views of ‘best practice’.

I currently work from my home office, writing about glass for journals and books. I see this as a way of raising awareness of the great historical legacy we have in glass and the opportunities for glass to play an important role in architecture of today within a sustainable future.

Q: Were there any findings in your Fellowship that helped inform your work after?

Definitely. I was able to include aspects as part of the undergraduate degree at Monash and to begin the process of implementing conservation practices into post-graduate courses. Students who took this path are still working in stained glass conservation decades later.

On a technical level I was able to introduce a two-part museum-grade epoxy resin that was developed for repairing glass breakages to conservators of architectural glass. Some who used it at that time continue to use it and monitor it effectiveness, colour change etc. They tell me that after nearly 30 years it remains in good condition with no sign of breakdown or colour change.

Later I was able to write the outline of a diploma course to create one career pathway for students who had completed apprenticeships (Certificate III Leadlight and Stained Glass). This course has morphed into the updated Certificate II Glass and Glazing : Designed Glass, and the first of the units from the proposed diploma is included in the Certificate IV Glass and Glazing, both being taught at Melbourne Polytechnic, Prahran.

Q: What are you currently working on? Are there any events / exhibitions / artists that we should be aware of?

Long ‘retired’ these days, I have been one of two founders (with Donna Kennedy) GLAAS Inc (acronym – glass, light, art, architecture, synergies) and its president throughout its short history. I was a ‘subject matter expert’ for writing the new glass courses (Certificate III & IV) at Melbourne Polytechnic, made possible by a Workplace Innovation Fund Grant from the Victorian Government and MP Creative Arts support. Part of the fund included setting up the Australian Centre for Glass Design (ACGD), which is currently situated in High Street Prahran. Volunteers run the gallery. Our next exhibition focusses on a young artist, Nadine Keegan, and some of her colleagues, in a show entitled ‘Another Green World’. It captures the current societal threads around environment, sustainability and the future for the next generation. It will run until mid-May.

In May 2021, the United Nations announced that 2022 would be the International Year of Glass. It was the culmination of two years work by a number of organisations led by the International Commission on Glass, of which GLAAS Inc is a member. Events are planned world-wide – from huge trade fairs, all manner of exhibitions, and to localised walks and talks.

I chair Regional Organisation #16 (S E Asia, Australia and New Zealand) which is coordinating numerous programs across glass arts and industry sectors – art, architecture, manufacturing, medical and scientific glass, optics, to name a few. In line with UN objectives, we encourage the development of events and activities that show glass in all its forms and promote its use within a green, sustainable and fair society.

On a personal level, my book, Lights Everlasting: Australia’s commemorative stained glass from the Boer War to Vietnam is to be published in July 2022, the culmination of ~10 years research and writing.

Q: Why are you passionate about glass work, and why should we continue to nurture these skills?

That is hard to answer, but I was ‘hooked’ on the possibilities of the material while an undergraduate at Caulfield Institute of Technology, now part of Monash University. It was such a versatile material that lent itself to the interpretation of my ideas that revolved around colour, light and imagination. As a result, I engraved, cut, blew, painted, etched, sandblasted on glass, often with quite disastrous results along the journey.

With its long history, glass is a material that has been manipulated and adapted to serve societies across every age and culture. This is no more important than right now, as we tackle climate change and diminishing resources. Glass must be part of the ‘circular economy’ as it can be endlessly recycled and (as artefacts from Tutankhamun’s tomb or medieval stained glass attest) may continue indefinitely with minimal deterioration. By understanding the challenges, as well as nurturing the skills of good design and technical excellence, glass will maintain its relevance for the 21st century.

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