Many of us who work in conservation are painfully aware of the fact that training programs in our field attract applicants primarily from privileged backgrounds. There are clear reasons for this—a key one being that applicants to conservation graduate programs are expected to have completed preprogram internships that are typically unpaid.
As a founding faculty member of the UCLA/Getty Graduate Program in the Conservation of Archaeological and Ethnographic Materials, I had long been concerned that we were not attracting students from diverse ethnic, racial, or socioeconomic backgrounds. Then, in 2015, a survey from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation supported what I and my colleagues knew about pervasive structural barriers to entry into art and museum careers. It encouraged us to act. The Andrew W. Mellon Opportunity for Diversity in Conservation, which began last year, was a direct response to lack of diversity in the field of conservation.
Providing Greater Access to Conservation Careers
Leadership at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation place a great emphasis on diversity. The Foundation was already supporting programs to increase representation in curatorial work and in other museum activities, so we pursued conversations about developing a similar program to support conservation careers.
In 2016 UCLA received a $450,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation to support a four-year pilot program to provide greater access to and information about the field of conservation. We have done this through the development of outreach materials about art conservation, outreach programs in schools and organizations in underrepresented communities, workshops for interested students, and funding of internships.
This grant also supports two cohorts of fifteen students, one in 2018 and a second in 2019, to attend a six-day summer workshop. Those fifteen workshop participants can then apply for the six preprogram internships that take place the subsequent year.
Selecting the First Cohort
In 2017 we assembled an advisory board of conservators, faculty of color at UCLA, and professionals with experience in implementing diversity programs. We began reaching out at universities throughout the western states to currently enrolled undergraduates with some years of undergraduate education ahead of them. But when faculty knew we were coming to campus, they would often invite recent graduates for whom they thought this would be a perfect opportunity.
In the end, we received 109 applications for 15 places in the summer program. With our board we developed a rubric for candidate evaluation, prioritizing students who had not been able to perform a preprogram internship or who had not yet had an opportunity to work under the mentorship of a conservator. We also considered students’ level of interest in cultural materials and their access to opportunities—how much they needed this program in order to pursue conservation training and complete the required preprogram internship.
Six Days of Learning
At the 2018 summer workshop at the UCLA/Getty Conservation Labs at the Getty Villa, about half the students were from Los Angeles and environs, while the other half came from the East Coast, Chicago, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, and Oregon. Many were studio art or art history majors, but we also had students with geology and chemistry backgrounds.
The students stayed in the UCLA dorms and engaged in hands-on workshops at the Getty Villa, along with field trips to the Autry Museum of the American West and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. They had six full, extensive days of learning about the different specialties of conservation and the research, treatment, and collaborations that go along with each specialty—including the academic, professional, and practitioner colleagues with whom conservators interact. They met with collections managers, exhibition designers, registrars, and curators.
Along with an introduction to examination techniques (UV, polarized light microscopy, radiography) were many hands-on activities including basic silver cleaning and varnish removal, inpainting, paper mends and stitched repairs, and mending and filling of ceramics.
Looking at Objects Holistically
We asked students to bring a significant object, such as a family heirloom, and to share why it was important to them. Some brought family photographs. Others brought jewelry. One student from Alaska even brought a raven blanket he himself had made. Discussions around these objects illuminated the fact that artifacts often become neutralized once they enter an institutional collection, losing direct connection to the individuals who owned or created them.
Students particularly enjoyed conversations with representatives from non-European indigenous communities about how decisions are made about interpretation and care in museums. For example, the students learned silver polishing from a conservator who collaborates with a Navajo silversmith. They learned that the desired finish on silver depends upon one’s cultural background, as well as the background of the jewelry.
Students also had a wonderful session with two colleagues who work with Native American collections. Jaclyn Roessel, who is Navajo, until recently had an appointment at the San Diego Museum of Man; the museum has significant tribal holdings and is pursuing a large initiative to decolonize. Kelly McHugh is head of collections at the National Museum of the American Indian. Together, Jaclyn and Kelly impressed on the students the need to look at objects holistically—where they came from, where they might be going, and how they might be used.
Determining the Tenure and Time of Internships
After completing a summer workshop, students can apply for one of six ten-week internships to be held the following year. These are fully funded and include travel, housing, and living stipends.These six ten-week internships have been awarded and are being arranged.
Half our summer workshop participants have already graduated, while the other half are going back to undergraduate studies. This affects how we structure the internships. Undergraduates typically know where they will be and have a very specific academic calendar. Post-baccalaureates, by contrast, may have specific needs for the tenure and timing of their internships, such as location specifications.
There are many ways to make these preprogram internships rich opportunities, which we are exploring now.
Student participants in this year’s summer workshop still have only an inkling of which areas of conservation resonated with them. While we have commitments from conservation labs willing to accept these students, the wild card will be what areas the students themselves will be interested in studying—and we are open to that.
We are also thinking about how best to help students complete other preprogram requirements for graduate school. If a student has a rich background in the arts, for example, but has never ventured into the sciences, that student will probably need additional support.
As we seek to create greater diversity in the conservation profession, we must meet students where they are and tailor programs to their individual needs. We hope this inclusive approach can spread to other initiatives and to the field in general.
We are already thinking about outreach for the 2019 Workshop, at present scheduled to take place on July 8-13, 2019.
More information is available on the Andrew W. Mellon Opportunity for Diversity in Conservation website.
Text of this post © Ellen Pearlstein and Laleña Vellanoweth. All rights reserved.