This blog post series will look at United States citizens who trained abroad and are currently practicing conservation in the US. The goal of these interviews is twofold: to provide pre-program students with a starting point for understanding international training through a range of student perspectives and to bring awareness of overseas conservation training programs to conservators practicing in the United States. It is the hope that the discussion of international training will answer questions and start an open dialog of the challenges and benefits of training abroad.
This blog series takes the form of interviews with established and emerging conservators who have trained abroad. Each interviewee offers their personal and professional perspective. So, while themes are apparent throughout these interviews, no single interview can summarize all the challenges and rewards of international training.
These interviews do not reflect the opinions of AIC or the training programs being discussed. The series has been created to reflect a range of experiences, and the personal accounts will not reflect the views of all students from any specific program.
What is Your Name, Specialty and Current position?
My name is Sean Belair. I am an Assistant Conservator in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Department of Arms and Armor. I am an objects conservator, but I have primarily specialized in the conservation of arms, armor, and related material.
Why did you pick your specialty?
My specialty picked me. Since I was a child, I have always had an interest in the Middle Ages, material history, and archaeology in general. I also loved making things and working with my hands. Until I discovered conservation, I always thought those would be separate pursuits. Arms and armor conservation combines my greatest passions into a single profession.
Can you describe your training pathway?
I went to college to study Medieval and Renaissance history. While searching for history internships for my sophomore summer, I came across a pre-program internship in the conservation of arms and armor at the Higgins Armory Museum in Worcester, Massachusetts. On day one of this internship, I knew conservation was the career for me.
The conservator I worked with at the Higgins had started twenty years prior and trained on the job; many people he had worked with during that time had not gone through a conservation program, either. Believing the ‘apprentice’ route was the best way to achieve my goals, I continued to pursue pre-program internships. By the time I realized that you could no longer become a conservator without an MA, I was already into my junior year. As a history major, there was no way I could meet the course requirements for the US programs without essentially getting another BA. Another conservator, who now happens to be the Met’s Armorer and my direct supervisor, recommended I look into programs abroad, as he had received an MSc in archaeological conservation from University College London.
When I was looking at programs in England, the University of Lincoln jumped out. Lincoln focuses on the conservation of historic objects, as opposed to archaeology or fine arts, and they take hands-on training very seriously. Students start treating objects their first week.
The general philosophy of the program is that graduates will probably go on to work in, or for, the historic houses of the UK and should be prepared to work on every type of material inside the house, including the building itself. Lincoln has a commercial wing that specializes in historic interiors. While I wanted to focus on metal objects specifically, arms and armor, like many museum objects, are mixed-media. All programs address mixed-media, but I felt that at Lincoln it was a major part of the curriculum.
The Lincoln program was also a two year program. Lincoln has a BA program, so the MA is only one additional year if you have done the undergraduate training. For people who received a BA in other fields, like me, they offer a one year Graduate Diploma course to catch you up with the MA. So, in two years (1 year GD + 1 year MA) I walked away with an MA in objects conservation, whereas similar programs required three years. In my mind, I was able to enter the workforce a year earlier, with a year’s less tuition. As I had hands-on pre-program experience and had taken the “Chemistry for Conservators” correspondence course, I didn’t feel like I would be overwhelmed by the condensed program or unprepared after graduation.
After Lincoln, I worked on outdoor sculpture for the New York City Parks Department, first as a summer intern, then staying on for another major project. It was during this time I applied for a Summer Graduate Internship in Arms and Armor Conservation at the Met, which I was awarded.
After a year of semi-employment and volunteering, I was awarded a Met Fellowship in Arms and Armor Conservation, which was subsequently renewed for another year. Just before the end of my second fellowship, our senior conservator (The Armorer) announced his retirement after 43 years with the museum. His retirement created an opening in the department, which I gratefully filled.
What were the advantages of your program of choice: Personal/Professional
I feel the ‘historic house’ approach, stressing mixed-media objects, has thoroughly prepared me for my career. In my work I have come across some very unusual combinations of materials and conditions, and I have never felt unprepared. I can’t say I’ve always known the right treatment or course of action, but I’ve always known where to start, and more importantly, when to stop.
While Lincoln wants you to be prepared for everything, they are very accommodating of specialties. One student, for example, chose to specialize in restoring ship models, and the lecturers found models for him to treat; another classmate decided she wanted to focus on textiles, so one of the lecturers built her a suction-table out of Cor-X, duct tape, and a vacuum. Both students went on to work in their chosen specialty.
The program did a particularly good job of preparing students to deal with display and storage environments. The course anticipates students will be working in unideal conditions with limited resources and teaches the students to find creative solutions to stabilizing environments. To reinforce the lectures and readings, all MA’s must do a survey of a historic structure in Lincoln including monitoring temperature, humidity, and light-levels through changing seasons, and make recommendations on improving the stability of the environment.
While I attended Lincoln, we were in an 18th century former hospital turned seminary, turned lab. It was atmospheric, but cramped and poorly laid out. The program has since moved into a brand new building shared with the art department. The lecturers were able to custom design the conservation space before construction even began. I was able to visit a couple of years ago, and it is a beautiful facility. The students also have access to the new art studios and have designated times where they are encouraged to practice manufacturing techniques like jewelry making and carpentry.
The tuition for the program is less than at other universities, and the cost of living in Lincoln is low. Additionally, Lincoln is only a two-year program instead of three, further reducing cost.
What were the disadvantages of your program of choice: Personal/Professional
I would say that one disadvantage is that Lincoln is a young program. Most conservators have heard of it, but it does not yet carry the cache of University College London or New York University. Being a young program also means there are fewer Lincoln alumni to network with, particularly in the US; where, to my knowledge, I am the only Lincoln alum.
While the two-year program worked for me, it might not be right for everyone. The structure only provides the summer between the GD and the MA to have a placement/internship before graduation. If you do not have any pre-program experience, then you are putting a lot of pressure on that one summer for building your resume and portfolio.
Of course, two years studying in England is two years away from friends and family. I was fortunate to have a very supportive girlfriend, now wife, and things like Skype and FaceTime make the distance easier, but it is still distance. That said, away is away, regardless of the country. I can’t say attending Buffalo, at the opposite end of my home state, would have been much easier than Lincoln.
There is, of course, the financial component. Going to school in England is not free and flights are expensive. It made sense for me because I wouldn’t have been eligible for the endowed American programs without spending significant time and money continuing to take undergraduate classes.
What advice do you have for pre-programmers considering a similar path
Picking a program is an important decision; you will spend several years there, after all, but it will not make or break your career. Your career will be defined by equal of parts hard work and dumb luck – comforting, I know. So my advice isn’t about picking a program, but planning ahead.
Start working on your portfolio as soon as possible. This will be what defines you to a potential employer. Get a good camera if you can and learn to take well-lit, in-focus pictures (though I’ve gotten good pictures with just my iPhone). Take lots of photos of everything you work on, and have other people take photos of every type of activity you perform. A portfolio or website is only as strong as the images it contains, and it is very easy to forget to take them or inadvertently get bad photos; either way, you will be pulling your hair out when you’re trying to put your material together.
A potential employer will Google you, so having a website and/or a ‘curated’ social media feed is a great way to promote yourself. I never made a website, but I believe it will be a must-have going forward.