ECPN Interview: Pre-program Internships in Textile Conservation

By Annabelle Camp posted 03-10-2021 21:53


The Emerging Conservation Professionals Network (ECPN) works to serve ECPs at all levels, from pre-program to early career. This blog series aims to highlight pre-program experiences and opportunities through interviews with internship supervisors from a wide range of specialties. These individuals have been selected for interviews due to their track record as excellent pre-program mentors. In this series we hope to highlight successful approaches to pre-program internships and mentoring while also providing insight on how pre-program individuals can best prepare to enter the conservation profession. 

As a part of this series, we are promoting the AIC’s Education and Training Committee (ETC) Guidelines for Pre-Program Internships and ECPN Compensation Resources. ETC guidelines are intended to aid internship supervisors and interns in defining goals, parameters, and expectations for pre-program internships. ECPN compensation data was compiled after reviewing public postings of pre-program, graduate, and post-graduate positions. The ECPN spreadsheets are available upon request and can be a valuable tool in compensation negotiations.

For our second interview in the series, we spoke to Amanda Holden, Senior Conservator of Textiles at the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) at Newfields. 

Please tell us about yourself and your organization (type of institution or private practice, geographic region, size, etc). How many other conservators do you work with and what specialties are represented?

Like many of my favorite colleagues, I am inquisitive and enjoy the process of discovery and learning. I am the Senior Conservator of Textiles at the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) at Newfields, and a guest lecturer at SUNY Buffalo State College. The IMA is the ninth oldest and eighth largest encyclopedic art museum in the United States. The Newfields’ campuses encompass a sculpture park, numerous large gardens, event spaces, and two historic homes, including the Miller House which is one of the most important mid-century modern residences in the country. The number of conservators working at the IMA has fluctuated over the years; presently, my colleagues include the chief conservator, two paintings conservators, a paper conservator, and two technicians. We also have one of the best outfitted conservation science labs in the world, headed by Dr. Greg Smith, who recently received the AIC Advocacy Award for his outreach and dedication to the field. 

When creating internships, what resources do you turn to for guidance and what training methods do you utilize? 

When creating an internship for someone I build the experience around that person’s goals. They serve as the paramount resource in designing an internship that will deliver the outcomes they seek. Together we plan and build an internship experience that dovetails their identified needs and strengths with the research, conservation, and collaborative initiatives that take place in the textile lab.

The formal answer to what training methods are employed would include case studies, job rotation within the conservation and the collections division, job shadowing, and lectures coupled with hands-on training. I believe there is no better way to learn something than to try to teach it to someone. As a result, I always invite interns to prepare and present lectures and hands-on training sessions to colleagues in the Collections Division. This is one of the most rewarding experiences for everyone involved (see the response to #7 for an example of this pedagogy). That said, formal training methods account for a small amount of the overall time I spend with interns. Instead, I offer to show interns the bigger picture of how most museums operate. I am candid about not having all the answers, but I nurture their problem-solving skills by approaching challenges together. For example, when Allison Slenker (SUNY Buffalo 2021) interned at the IMA in 2017 I asked her to assess the materials used in a collection of whimsical hats dating to the early twentieth-century that we were preparing for exhibition. Using FTIR and XRF she analyzed and identified the early plastics and various other materials found in over 50 objects. Her research led to a reinterpretation of the exhibition, Bes-Ben: The Mad Hatter of Chicago, where the use of early plastics by the milliner Bes-Ben was highlighted. This innovative research was a result of Allison’s curiosity and her assistance in problem-solving. I believe that fostering collaborative problem-solving skills from the earliest stages of training is central to developing conservators that are innovative and inspirational. 

Allison Slenker in 2017 completing XRF analysis on the materials in the Bes-Ben hat collection in preparation for the exhibition, Bes-Ben: The Mad Hatter of Chicago. Allison is currently completing her third-year graduate conservation internship at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

What skills do you look for in prospective interns? 

If Newfields is the first internship for someone then my desired skill set for them would be curiosity, a positive attitude, and a willingness to learn (which is taken straight from AIC’s Education & Training Committee’s Guidelines for Pre-Program Internships). With time we would explore additional skills together to determine if conservation is a field they want to pursue. If an intern is close to applying to graduate school, then I would expect the student to show exceptional hand-skills, research initiative, scholarship, an understanding of chemistry and science, and leadership potential. 

How often do you accept pre-program interns and how long do their internships usually last? Are these positions paid, given a stipend, or unpaid? If unpaid, are other types of “in kind” payments provided?

I accept pre-program interns infrequently, but when someone reaches out and expresses an interest, I try to accommodate an internship when possible. The infrequency of acceptance is due to the layout and schedule of the entire conservation department. All the conservation labs at the IMA are located within the same space, so we try to rotate which disciplines will have visiting scholars and interns. Conservation regularly hosts graduate interns, post-graduate fellowships, professors on sabbatical, visiting scholars and artists, which makes for a dynamic work environment, but also limits when and how many interns can be taken at once. 

The length of a pre-program internship varies depending on the intern’s availability. Some pre-program interns are onsite one day a week for a few months, some have worked onsite 5 days a week for one to six months. 

These positions are unpaid currently. If after talking with a potential intern it is decided that they will work on a specific exhibition or initiative that has been prioritized by senior management, and they are within 12 months of applying to graduate school, there is potential housing available at Newfields’ Scholar Residence. However, this is highly competitive, its occupancy is limited to four apartments, and it is often booked one year ahead of time, so this opportunity often requires extensive preplanning. 

What are your goals for the intern and how do you convey these expectations?

The goals for the intern are something the two of us discuss and determine together. During the interview I ask potential interns about their goals and we determine how those can be realistically achieved in a given amount of time. No two interns have had the same objectives. Many times, the goal is to determine if conservation is a field they might want to seriously pursue. Pre-program interns that have had numerous internships prior to working with me might focus more on analysis, treatment, and collaborating on publications.

Are these goals re-evaluated at some point during the internship? How do you structure the evaluations? 

We are in constant communication, resulting in evaluations that are informal and ongoing. As such we can quickly adapt to new or evolving goals.

What does your organization do to help pre-program interns feel like they are part of your conservation community? 

We have a museum-wide internship community throughout the year, which is especially robust during the summer months that include tours, lectures, and social hours. These activities are arranged by the museum’s volunteer coordinator. Within conservation the pre-program intern is invited to attend conservation meetings, social events, and brainstorm informally over tea. As mentioned earlier, I find that the lectures and hands-on demonstrations that pre-program interns are invited to lead help to not only thoroughly learn a topic, but the act of sharing knowledge also strengthens the conservation community. For example, when Jackie Peterson-Grace (WUDPAC 2018) interned at the IMA in 2015 she taught a six-hour workshop on shibori resist dyeing, where participants were invited to try different binding techniques and to dye their textiles, resulting in beautiful textiles and lasting friendships. 

A workshop on the resist dyeing technique, shibori, being taught by Jackie Peterson-Grace to fellow textile conservation interns and employees. From left to right, Bermet Nishanova is now a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago, Sheena Birt is now owner/principal of Color Story Studio, and Jackie Peterson-Grace is now the Assistant Textile Conservator at The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

What are the benefits of mentoring a pre-program intern? Please also share with us some things that past interns have taught you. 

As someone who loves to learn, the benefit of mentoring a pre-program intern is that together we are constantly learning and figuring things out. Past interns have taught me about gold photographs developed on textiles, reptile skins fusing to wool, the fade-rate of fluorescent pigments, and Central Asian textiles. I have also learned a lot about life outside of conservation, such as extreme sports, cyber security, and craft beer. I am grateful that most people drawn to conservation are inquisitive, fascinating, and willing to share their knowledge with me.

Do you have any other advice to share with prospective emerging conservators? 

I would encourage anyone interested in conservation to seek experience working in other museum departments, such as art handling, exhibition design, curatorial and education. This wide-ranging experience will make future collaborations more productive and rewarding. Finally, conservation can be a difficult field to enter, but if you cannot imagine doing anything else, then keep with it. Eventually opportunities for advancement will either appear or opportunities can be created with initiative and creativity.