To promote awareness and a clearer understanding of different pathways into specializations that require particular training, the Emerging Conservation Professionals Network (ECPN) has been conducting a series of interviews with conservation professionals in various specialties. We began the series with Chinese and Japanese painting conservation and continued the series by focusing on practitioners working with Electronic Media. Now, we are interviewing conservation professionals working in AIC’s Wooden Artifact Group (WAG). These conservators work with various wooden objects, which can range from furniture, musical instruments, waterlogged wood, frames, and more! We’ve asked our interviewees to share some thoughts about their career paths, hoping to inspire new conservation professionals and provide valuable insight into these areas of our professional field.
In our first interview from the WAG series, we spoke with Caite Sofield, a third year fellow in the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC). Caite is specializing in Furniture Conservation, and she is also a graduate intern in Furniture Conservation at The Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA). She received a Bachelor of Art in Italian Studies from Ithaca College, with a double minor in Art History and Classical Studies.
ECPN: Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
Caite Sofield (CS): I am a third year graduate fellow in the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC), specializing in Furniture Conservation. I am completing my internship year in Furniture Conservation at The Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA). I graduated from Ithaca with a B.A. in Italian Studies, and a double minor in Art History and Classical Studies. I grew up in New Hampshire and did much of my pre-program work in the New England area.
ECPN: How were you first introduced to conservation, and why did you decide to pursue conservation?
CS: My first introduction to conservation was during an undergraduate internship in London at the Leighton House Museum. Organized through the Art History Department of Ithaca College, my internship was divided between assisting the Curator of Collections and Research and working with a Conservation Cleaner in the Linley Sanbourne House, a historic property also managed by LHM. I found this work dynamic and compelling, and was surprised to discover that I learned as much (if not more) about history from working in the house and on the objects than I did in my associated art history course. I was so excited to connect with history in this tangible way, and I knew that I wanted to seek similar experiences in the future.
ECPN: Of all specializations, what contributed to your decision to pursue furniture conservation?
CS: Furniture conservation appealed to me because furniture, as a subsection of decorative arts, can include a wide variety of materials, and there is a wonderful overlap between architecture, textiles, and objects. I love seeing the way the intended function of an object affects its design and how that changes over time. I am particularly fond of the forms that are highly specific and representative of a small window in time, like the voyeuse of the 18th century and the telephone table of the 20th century.
ECPN: What has been your training pathway? Please list any universities, apprenticeships, technical experience, and any related jobs or hobbies.
CS: After my introduction to conservation in my junior year at Ithaca College, I began researching conservation programs and the prerequisites. I was only one course away from completing my degree requirements in Italian Studies at the time, so I used my available electives to start checking off the required courses I hadn’t taken yet, including the studio art and chemistry courses. In my senior year, the heads of the Chemistry and Art History departments teamed up to teach a course called Chemistry and Art. This was a great overview of how much science affects art and gave me great perspective on why I needed to take chemistry courses to continue in the conservation field.
I continued working through the pre-reqs by completing non-degree coursework at St. Anselm College and the University of New Hampshire, near my hometown, while working as a veterinary assistant part-full time. Because I knew I was interested in furniture conservation, I sought out woodworking courses to fill the 3-dimensional design requirements. I did weekend and evening workshops, and a 10-week Furniture Making Intensive at the Homestead Woodworking School in Newmarket, NH. Later in my pre-program path, I took the 12-week Furniture Intensive at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport, ME.
My first pre-program internship was in the furniture lab at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. After that, I worked on an Asian lacquer project and outdoor sculpture at the Preservation Society of Newport County. I volunteered at the New Hampshire Historical Society for a few months, documenting and re-housing embroidery samplers. I returned to Newport for another six months to continue work on the outdoor sculpture project. My final pre-program internship was at the Collections Conservation Branch of the National Park Service.
While in the WUDPAC program, I have interned at the Furniture/Wooden Artifacts Lab of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and worked on archaeological documentation of furniture and architectural fragments of the Swedish battleship, Vasa, at the Vasa Museum in Stockholm.
ECPN: Are there any particular skills that you feel are important or unique to your discipline? Can one solely be a ‘wooden artifact conservator,’ or is knowledge of composites and how to treat other materials inherent to the work?
CS: Knowledge of wood science and woodworking skills are hugely important to furniture conservation, as wood is the predominant material you will come across on a day-to-day basis. I suppose one could solely be a ‘wooden artifact conservator’ if the collection needs supported it, but I am really interested in furniture more broadly, and for that, you need to have a working knowledge of other materials and surface techniques (ie: gilding, metals, leather and other organics, and stone). Because of the diverse materials a furniture conservator can encounter, I have actively sought out institutions with encyclopedic collections or projects that may indirectly relate to furniture to broaden my exposure.
ECPN: What are some of your current projects, research, or interests?
CS: I am working on two painted architectural panels from a period room at the PMA, which comprises painted wall paneling from a 17th century Parisian house. They were removed from exhibition so that we could replace degrading 1950’s era silk wall coverings. Upon deinstallation, we discovered that one panel had structural damage from weakened wood around an undocumented repair. In addition to the treatment, the curator would also like to have some technical analysis completed to begin the process of researching all of the painted paneling in the room. One of my favorite parts of working in an active lab in a very busy museum is that there are always new and interesting projects coming through or unexpectedly popping up!
ECPN: In your opinion, what is an important research area or need in your specialization?
CS: As I mentioned before, I am fascinated by the way that function affects design in the furniture field but also how changes in technology influenced changes in design. I love how the use of tubular steel in the Bauhaus movement revolutionized furniture production and how the development of foam technologies all but eliminated tradition horsehair and sprung upholstery. There has been plenty of research into the care and treatment of these materials, but it’s an area that I personally would like to explore further.
ECPN: Do you have any advice for prospective emerging conservators who would like to pursue this specialization?
CS: That is a tough question. In most regards furniture conservation is like any other specialty, but I think one thing I’ve learned is the value of trying other things and all specialties. As I reflect on my pre-program experience and approach the end of my graduate program, I am struck by how each of my classmates thrive in their respective specialties; what seems routine for them is awe-inspiring for me, and vice versa. By exploring other specialties (and other career paths) I have found an area that fits. I love historic costumes, but thread counts and invisible stitches make my head hurt. I had a blast working on outdoor sculpture, but the science of stone is really confusing to me. When I talk about a structural repair, or I am dealing with tented veneers, my classmates are overwhelmed. But, by working in different specialties and learning as much as I can within the field, I can appreciate the skill and knowledge of others and know where to look, or to whom to turn, when I run into a material with which I am less familiar.
ECPN: Please share any last thoughts or reflections.
CS: I found it very useful to have woodworking experience before I started the WUDPAC program. It is no longer a requirement of admission as a furniture major, nor do you have to declare a major at the time of admission; however, if it something you are drawn to, having some of those skills in hand will be advantageous down the line. One doesn’t have to be a master craftsman to conserve objects, but a working knowledge of techniques and troubleshooting will only help in care and treatment decisions.
*Featured image: Caite during the installation of new fabric in the gallery. [Photo: Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art by Jason Wierzbicki.]