This was a panel discussion moderated by Debbie Hess Norris on where the future of furniture conservation training lies. WAG Program Chair Stephanie Auffret began the discussion by describing the current situation, in which very few students are being trained in furniture conservation in the US currently. In preparation for the discussion, Stephanie sent a questionnaire to the panel participants, current educators in furniture conservation, and current practicing furniture conservators. The questionnaire asked about expectations of core competencies for recent graduates in furniture conservation, opportunities to develop these competencies, and where potential employment opportunities for recent graduates might lie. The questionnaire identified a broad range of core competencies which a recent graduate in furniture conservation ought to have, including knowledge of the history of furniture, a scientific understanding of wood and other materials used in furniture making, good hand skills, knowledge of preventive conservation and documentation, as well as a structural understanding of furniture.
The panelists then gave very brief presentations. Steve Brown, professor of furniture making at the North Bennet Street School in Boston, MA, described the furniture training program, which includes knowledge and handling of hand and power tools, and a progressive series of furniture making projects, including a tool chest, a chair, a table and a case piece. He showed typical examples of furniture made by NBSC students, and described the emphasis of the program on developing hand skills.
MayJo Lelyveld described the absence of furniture conservation training opportunities in Australia, and described how most conservators tasked with caring for furniture there have come from othher areas of specialization and have had to develop their skills on their own, or from non-conservators with knowledge of woodworking techniques. For treatments involving a high level of woodworking skill, they have to turn to these non-conservators to participate in the treatment.
Mark Anderson then briefly talked about the furniture major at WUDPAC, describing how few majors there have been in recent years. WUDPAC requires that its furniture majors demonstrate a certain level of competency in wood working, a requirement that does not exist for any of the other majors. WUDPAC has graduated very few furniture majors since this requirement was instituted, illustrating that it is very difficult to assemble all the prerequisites at a sufficiently high level of achievement to get in to Winterthur and also gain experience in cabinet making.
Ton Wilmering talked about some of the training programs in Europe, and that they exist at more varied academic levels, briefly discussing his own training.
Jonathon Thornton talked about the Buffalo program, indicating that they train furniture conservators their as well. He emphasized that good hand skills were important for ALL conservators, and that developing them in one area or another could come a little later in a conservator’s training.
Debbie then opened the discussion up to the floor, and my ability to take careful notes took a back seat to my interest in the conversation. The following is more my impressions of the conversation than a strict recounting. Tad Fallon pointed out that the first CAL class occupied many of the institutional positions that are still available, and that the institutional job opportunities haven’t been that great. Jonathon Thornton said it’s like the pig in the python (or something like that), a big bulge in the middle, but it’s skinny at both ends! Steve Brown said that a visitor to NBSS once commented that she wished she had a job which didn’t require any thinking, illustrating an attitude about furniture making which is all too prevalent (sometimes even among other conservators, and especially other museum professionals, in my opinion).
The discussion seemed to center more and more around whether and how much training in furniture making a furniture conservator needs. Jonathon Thornton pointed out that furniture conservators have a host of tools, techniques and materials available to them not typically used by the traditional furniture maker, including casting in polymers and digital reproductions, which conservators do and should use. Ton Wilmering related the discussion back to the wood panels of panel paintings. He described that many museums (and conservators) accept cracks in panel paintings when they would never accept tears in easel paintings. He thinks this is because the conservators responsible for the panel know they don’t have the wood working skills to repair the crack.
Mark Anderson again discussed Winterthur’s difficulty in finding students with the preparation necessary to get in to the program and the woodworking skills necessary to major in furniture, and suggested that students didn’t need to arrive at Winterthur with those skills, nor did they need to go to NBSS to get them. There was some discussion from the floor that areas of subspecialization (marquetry, carving, etc) are not usually perfected by even those students who DO have wood working skills before they get into school. Others pointed out that much of the work done by most furniture conservators involves surface treatment rather than structural work. I believe a largely unspoken, but underlying current in the discussion, was that there are not a large number of institutional jobs in furniture conservation in existence in the US right now. Mark did say that an institutional job was the ambition of most conservation program students. This may be part of the problem in recruiting students into furniture conservation, but the problem will only compound itself when current institutional furniture conservators retire and their institutions are unable to find people trained to replace them. The positions will be eliminated and there will be even fewer jobs available, and more furniture collections will be in the care of people without the training to undertake complex treatments.
Debbie wrapped up the discussion by suggesting that WAG needs to plan a way forward. She had a wide-ranging list of suggestions. Perhaps WUDPAC could send potential furniture majors to NBSS for the summer between their first and second year, as they are currently doing with some book and paper majors to the NBSS bookbinding program (an idea which occurred to me as well during the discussion). WAG might undertake demographic studies about where furniture conservation positions exist, and how close those in those positions are to retirement. The data collected could be used to help develop grant proposals to improve the professional development opportunities for various woodworking skills. She encouraged discussions between WAG and FAIC to work on developing more PD courses. She also suggested that WAG hold a roundtable discussion among furniture conservation educators, both US and international, to discuss current practices and how things might be developed, and how job opportunities might be increased. She offered that WUDPAC and Winterthur would be willing to host such a discussion. Debbie being Debbie, she left us all feeling hopeful for the future, with a renewed sense of purpose and willingness to roll up our sleeves and get cracking. Let’s hope we can build some momentum and accomplish some of the things on Debbie’s list of suggestions.