AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting, Conservation and Education II, May 10

Chaired by Beverly Nadeen Perkins, Chief Conservator for the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, this session included 4 interesting presentations. All focused on post-secondary education in conservation for students in allied professions.

Beverly began the session by stating two important beliefs from early in her career: 1) that she should share information freely with other conservators, and 2) that she should be cautious about sharing information with non-conservators. Over time, however, she has come to believe that her knowledge and experience can and should be shared with all. To facilitate conversation on this topic, she chose two questions for the presenters and the audience to discuss following the talks. Sadly, the session ran out of time and no discussion was possible. But if you attended the session and are reading this post, perhaps you’d like to comment and discuss here? Here are the questions:

1)      To what extent should conservators be involved with directing and educating upcoming artists about their use of art materials? Is there any ethical dilemma here? Would conservators be overstepping their bounds by doing so?

2)      How is increased outreach and education among allied professions impacting the role of conservators?

In presentation order, the talks in this session were as follows:

Ingrid A. Neuman, Conservator at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, in Providence, Rhode Island, gave a fascinating overview of her work with young artists at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). At RISD, she educates undergraduate students about art materials, with the goal of enabling them to make informed choices about the materials they use. Her teaching includes information about how to use art materials safely and about how to manipulate them to achieve desired effects. She also described her work with the “Sitings Competition.” In this program, degree candidate students at RISD can apply to create site-specific installations in the Museum of Art. Working with Ingrid, the students are introduced to issues in exhibition conservation and to tools like MSDS sheets.

Ingrid linked conservation to artistic creation by enumerating common activities shared by conservators and artists, including: problem solving, creativity, repurposing, borrowing, and experimenting. She also discussed the reasons to transmit knowledge to young artists. Practically – their work will be acquired by collection institutions. Idealistically – conservators have a professional obligation to share knowledge. Realistically – professors of art are responsible for educating students about artistic processes, not the chemistry and deterioration of art materials.

Finally, Ingrid noted that while this population might not be seriously invested in preservation at this moment in their careers, their views may change over time. In future, she would like to survey recent alumni about what they found valuable and what they would like to have learned in regard to art materials and preservation. She also encouraged conservators to participate more in education at art schools, suggesting that more widely available, quick, and simple classes on this topic would be beneficial.

Nina Roth-Wells and Lauren Lessing spoke about their work with students at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. Their goals at Colby are to give students a hands-on connection with art, to expose them to the field of conservation, and to instill in them the importance of cultural heritage in a comprehensive and inclusive way. Nina and Lauren talked primarily about two courses they’ve been involved with at Colby College, a special January term course (a month-long course between the regular academic terms), and an upper level chemistry course.

Nina, a conservator in private practice and an instructor at Colby College, spoke about the January term course that she designed and taught. The class was open to all students, not just those in related disciplines like art history. In fact, she observed that art history students had a harder time engaging with the physical, material aspects of artwork than did students who had never studied art. Nina shared the structure of the course, in which she tried to present a wide range of conservation activities to her students. The class included many field trips, as well as lab-based activities. Notably, students were required to write condition reports and to propose and defend conservation treatments (although no treatments were conducted – a disappointment to some students). The collections of the Colby College Museum of Art were used for these activities, and the assignments encouraged students to think about how conservation treatment might change the informational value of artwork and artifacts.

Lauren, the Mirken Curator of American Art at the Colby College Museum of Art, talked about the need to make academic museum collections valued and useful for students and faculty across campus (an incredibly important goal!). At Colby, she has worked to expand the Museum’s collections use from the art department to the humanities, social sciences, and sciences. More specifically, she spoke about engagement with an upper level chemistry course focusing on instrumental methods and analysis. The Museum’s involvement with the class has evolved over time and, thanks to assistance from Nina, now includes a concrete connection to art, as students examine artwork with different, measured wavelengths of light and use a digital camera to produce infrared reflectography.

Both Nina and Lauren stressed the ways in which conservation can build bridges to the humanities and made the point that opportunities for sustained examination of cultural heritage materials are rare and valuable in today’s world of mediated, virtual looking.

Norman Muller, Conservator at the Princeton University Art Museum, in Princeton, New Jersey, gave a very practical talk focused on the activities he has used to successfully teach technical information to art history students. His work, as presented in this talk, has focused on teaching the materials and technology of painting.

Norman described how he introduces students to examination techniques and to technical analysis. His teaching helps students see how paintings in a particular school, or during a particular time period, are related in a physical, technical way, deepening the students’ understanding of artwork and enabling them to evaluate paintings in multiple ways.  He also discussed the ways in which he works with students in the galleries at the Princeton University Art Museum.

A truly committed teacher, Norman demonstrated the use of a 14th century Siennese triptych model that he built (!) to teach students about the construction of panel paintings. He also presented information about an exhibition he designed to share technical information about paintings with students and visitors at Princeton’s museum.

Katherine Untch, Director of the Conservation Division at ARG Conservation Services in San Francisco, California, spoke more broadly about conservation education for allied professionals. Her presentation posed multiple, wide-ranging questions about education and conservation.

In evaluating conservation education, Katy encouraged conservators to examine what allied professionals should learn and why, and what conservators are teaching and why. She also asked conservators to think about the ways in which conservation education relates to education in allied professions, and what conservators might learn by looking more carefully at what is taught in those professions.

In a disturbing portion of her talk, Katy reported that allied professionals have told her they prefer not to work with conservators because conservators are inflexible, don’t deliver to expectations, and are not team players. As an audience member, it was not clear to me how many professionals had expressed this view or in what context the criticism was delivered. Katy made the point that conservators must learn how to engage and respect other professionals, and learn to work more efficiently and effectively in teams.

Katy also examined professionalism and respect among conservators. Are we wise to criticize past treatments? Do we define our jobs too narrowly by always focusing on treatment in outreach? To illustrate this last point, she examined a series of conservation images online, all of which showed treatment activities. To balance this focus on treatment, Katy argued that we should share more of the complexity of what we do. She further encouraged conservators to develop joint curricula with allied professions, and to pay more attention to feedback from non-conservator colleagues, including whether or not we are meeting their needs. Opportunities that she enumerated for conservation education in future included expanding opportunities for continuing education and expanding research degrees at the doctoral level in joint fields. Finally, she listed a series of concepts that conservation educators could focus on in teaching, including team and project based learning, process based decision making, and the development of communications skills.