ECPN International Training Interview with Kamila Korbela

By Annabelle Camp posted 09-25-2019 10:00


This blog post series will look at United States citizens who trained abroad and are currently practicing conservation in the US.  The goal of these interviews is twofold: to provide pre-program students with a starting point for understanding international training through a range of student perspectives and to bring awareness of overseas conservation training programs to conservators practicing in the United States. It is the hope that the discussion of international training will answer questions and start an open dialog of the challenges and benefits of training abroad. 

This blog series takes the form of interviews with established and emerging conservators who have trained abroad.  Each interviewee offers their personal and professional perspective. So, while themes are apparent throughout these interviews, no single interview can summarize all the challenges and rewards of international training. 

These interviews do not reflect the opinions of AIC or the training programs being discussed.  The series has been created to reflect a range of experiences, and the personal accounts will not reflect the views of all students from any specific program.

For this blog post, we spoke with Paintings and Sculpture Conservator Kamila Korbela who received her undergraduate and graduate degrees in Paintings and Sculpture Conservation at the Academy of Fine Arts in Stuttgart, Germany. in 2016 she moved to Los Angeles to become the Ahmanson Paintings Conservator at LACMA. Kamila currently works as a private conservator in Los Angeles and is collaborating with LACMA to study daylight-fluorescent paint films ( 

Why did you pick your specialty? 

I wanted to become a paintings conservator from an early age. Painting was always the art form that I was more drawn to, and I always loved to recreate artists’ expressions to understand individual painting techniques better.

Can you describe your training pathway?  

I started my training pathway with a fellowship with the German Government and under the close supervision of Dr. Felix Muhle. He taught me the basics about art conservation and prepared me for the admission tests to enter a German conservation degree program. The successful completion of a pre-program internship or fellowship is the minimum requirement for consideration. The duration of the pre-program requirements has recently been reduced from a minimum of two years to one year. This development is based on reforms in accordance with the Bologna Process and in my opinion a major step in the wrong direction. Many students in Germany, however, continue to have many more years of experience before entering a degree program. 

I was not ready to apply after one year of fellowship and became involved with subsequent exciting opportunities. Therefore, I extended my pre-program training for another year. I then applied for the program in Stuttgart, my mentor’s alma mater that he strongly recommended, and was admitted after my first try. Anybody interested in becoming a student at the Academy can apply up to three times. The program requires applicants to submit a treatment portfolio. Selected applicants then take admission tests to help choose between the excellent candidates to study at the Academy. Admission tests include art history, science, conservation theory, cognitive and manual assessments.

The undergraduate portion of the program normally requires three years of full-time study. It is also required to fulfill at least three months of internships with  hands-on experience at a conservation center in museums, cultural institutions, or with an accredited conservation professional in private practice during the semester breaks. I completed 9 internships during my semester breaks (summer and winter) nationally and internationally. It was a great opportunity to travel and get real-world work experience in the museum world.

The graduate portion of the Conservation program requires two years of full-time study, which is usually followed by a post-grad fellowship of one to three or even more years. The program is formally divided into undergraduate and graduate degree, but it is required to complete both degrees successively for successful graduation. I completed my studies in 5 years, but spent the last two years at the National Gallery of Denmark in Copenhagen. The graduate portion is based on practical conservation work as well as structured course modules through lectures and seminars, which enables the student to complete a semester abroad. My time at the National Gallery was associated with incredible opportunities as well as personal and professional growth, which is why my professor agreed to extend my semester abroad. I used my vacation time at the National Gallery to travel to Stuttgart and complete mandatory course modules. I was also able to get credit for modules completed at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Art and the University of Copenhagen. 

It is also required to carry out a research project in a specialized field of study in the last year of the conservation program. This project allowed me to focus on Edvard Munch’s painting technique and structural problems within his early paintings. I completed my research at the National Gallery of Denmark and presented my research at an international conference in the form of a presentation, poster and a print publication.

What were the advantages of your program of choice: Personal/Professional? 

Many conservation programs in and outside of Germany appear to be overly theoretical and regimented. The training pathway at the Academy is incredibly involved, with a minimum commitment of 6 years that requires specialization from the very beginning. The program, however, gives its students the skills, knowledge and professional credibility required to successfully solve conservation problems independently and in a confident manner. One major advantage is that the curriculum focuses on theory and practice in equal parts, and the small number of students (three to five per term) allows for a high level of supervision. The program incorporates a variety of teaching strategies including lectures, one-to-one mentoring as well as structured group discussions. 

Every student has access to all treatment and documentation equipment as well as analytical equipment at any given time and an assigned work area with table, storage, and a binocular articulating stereo microscope with two light sources. There is also one mobile floor stand mounted stereo microscope that is shared by all. I am a bit of a nocturnal worker and prefer to plow through my workload in the late evening, so I always enjoyed staying late with one or two of my classmates.

Every student is further required to give a bi-yearly talk and presentation about conservation measures and issues or technical art history in front of the whole faculty. Valuable feedback is given by classmates after the talk. Further speech and presentation grading is provided by the professors in a more intimate setting after the session. I found these talks to be extremely helpful, as I never trained on how to get up in front of an audience and deliver a scientific presentation with slides before. 

There is also an annual educational excursion that is mandatory in the first three years, offering opportunities to dive into the art history and conservation scene of different art-affine regions in Europe. It is organized by the second-year students and every student is required to give a talk about a topic of choice. The excursions offer an intimate glimpse into regional conservation centers, collections and museums, and the opportunity to network with international colleagues. 

In Germany only academies and universities have the privilege to offer PhD studentships, and the Academy offers one PhD position in Conservation every four years. Small study groups and intense student support by the professors are the hallmark of the learning atmosphere at German academies. There are, however, no other differences between academies and universities that I can think about right now.


What were the disadvantages of your program of choice: Personal/Professional? 

Although I experienced the overall level of guidance and supervision at the academy as excellent, I spent almost two years of my education abroad with little guidance from my professor or faculty staff. My professor even told me that the supervisory process and recurring grading of bi-yearly treatment assignments was difficult from a distance. I did not mind at that time, as I received excellent grades from my professor, and incredible opportunities and individual attention at the National Gallery of Denmark. For instance, I was involved with the preparation of an important still-life exhibition. I had the opportunity to research and treat paintings by artists, such as Abraham Mignon, Jan Davidsz de Heem, Sir Anthony van Dyck and Ambrosius Bosschaert. Another focal project of mine that culminated in the participation in an international conference and print publication, revolved around five canvas paintings by Edward Munch and included research in Denmark, Norway and Germany as well as treatments. I would change nothing about my educational path, but I would have certainly benefited from a closer proximity to my professor and the faculty.

I heard from other graduate students that faculty politics can be challenging to maneuver. Due to my absence in the last two years, I was able to avoid faculty politics almost entirely. 

What advice do you have for pre-programmers considering a similar path? 

I have no hesitation in recommending the program at the Academy in Stuttgart and believe anyone who is fortunate enough to study there will benefit tremendously. It is a necessity to be comfortable with the German language at the undergraduate level. Some of the graduate course modules, however, are taught in English. There are foreign exchange students that spend a semester at the Academy and successfully immerse themselves in new experiences and ways of life without speaking German. Free German class programs specifically for beginner through intermediate levels are offered through the University of Stuttgart.