From Curatorial to Conservation

Installing a case of Indian terracotta sculptures with Susan Tai, Elizabeth Atkins Curator of Asian Art at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

In just over three weeks, I move cross-country to begin the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC) as a member of the class of 2015. As I carefully pack my belongings to ship them from California to Delaware, I reflect on how I arrived at this moment, making the transition from senior curatorial assistant at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (SBMA) to conservation student at Winterthur Museum.

When I graduated with a BA in art history and studio art seven years ago, I did not know exactly what it was that I wanted to do, but I did know that I wanted to work in a museum. When I was offered the position of curatorial assistant for Asian art at SBMA, I eagerly accepted it. At the time, I could not imagine how much I would learn about Asian art history and material culture let alone the operation of museum. In many ways, it felt as though I were still in school! I became knowledgeable in unexpected subjects due the diverse nature of the permanent collection: Han-dynasty ceramics from China, prayer wheels from Tibet, woodblock prints from Japan, and miniature paintings from India.

During my first year at the museum, I explored a number of career possibilities beyond the curatorial department—registration, exhibition design, art preparation—but it was in conservation that I felt most at home. Though SBMA is without a staff conservator, I found many opportunities to develop my understanding of the field. I began to work with the museum’s collections management and facilities departments on preventative measures related to storage and exhibition as well as assist contracted conservators with on-site examinations and treatments. SBMA’s varied collection offered me practical experience with a range of media from Chinese embroidered silk textiles from the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) to modern Latin American sculpture.

Mechanically reducing corrosion products and burial accretions from small Indian bronzes with Nancy Rogers, art preparator (left), and Steve Colton (back), objects conservator in private practice, at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

To broaden my experience, I also completed two conservation internships—the first with Fine Art Conservation Laboratories, a private studio specializing in painting conservation in Santa Barbara, and the second with the Department of Paper Conservation at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. At the Getty, I not only had the chance to work with amazing conservators and access to resources unparalleled on the West Coast but also to study a collection quite unlike anything with which I was previously familiar. Medieval manuscripts and Old Master drawings—lucky intern!

Using a heated spatula to remove tape from the printed flyleaf of a 19th-century book. © 2012 J. Paul Getty Trust.

As I look to what lies ahead for me in WUDPAC, I am most excited by the fact that my classes will be held in a museum and that I will learn directly from the conservators who work there. The partnership between the Winterthur and the University of Delaware is a truly unique feature of the program and certainly one that drew me to it. So much of my pre-program experience was shaped by working in a museum environment and interacting with all staff that play a role in the care and presentation of art. I look forward to continuing my “museum education” at Winterthur!

Michelle Sullivan is about to begin her first year in the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation. She is particularly interested in the conservation of works on paper and enjoys printmaking, papermaking, and bookbinding in her spare time.

Winterthur is celebrating 60 years of graduate programs in art conservation and material culture studies in the current exhibition A Lasting Legacy: Sixty Years of Winterthur Graduate Programs, on view through June 16, 2013.

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