CCN Interview with Joelle Wickens and Melissa King: Preventive Conservation at the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC)

By Jessica Pace posted 02-27-2019 18:11


The Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC) has recently created a specialization track in Preventive Conservation. Curious about this new development and its potential impact on the conservation field, I sat down with Dr. Joelle Wickens (Preventive Conservator and WUDPAC Associate Director) and Melissa King (WUDPAC’s first student to specialize in Preventive Conservation) to find out more about the emergence of the specialization, their experience with it to date, and what they see for the future of the program.

JP: What led to WUDPAC’s decision to create a preventive conservation specialization?

JW: This was part of a long evolution that started before my arrival at WUDPAC in 2008. WUDPAC started formally teaching preventive conservation to all students in the mid 1990’s and rolled out the preventive minor in the early 2000’s. About 2010, I was part of a group that worked with AIC to establish the Collection Care Network, an organized preventive group, and this was a piece of the puzzle that lead to discussions at WUDPAC about a possible major.  In 2016, WUDPAC gathered a group of national and international experts in the field of preventive conservation to discuss the topic. The group strongly encouraged WUDPAC to establish a preventive major and discussed possible curriculum components. Two years later Melissa decided to become the first WUDPAC major in preventive conservation and we are building her program on that draft curriculum.

JP: Melissa, what led you to move from objects to preventive conservation?

MK:  Before starting graduate school, I worked for over seven years as a professional artist while gaining experience in art conservation. My clients were genuinely interested in preserving their artwork, and I began to offer suggestions on safe locations in the house to display the paintings, proper hanging hardware, and cleaning methods to prevent the accumulation of dust. I spent many years as a tenant in a vibrant studio space with artists of varying specialties. It became apparent that I wasn’t the only artist who sought out this type of preventive knowledge, so I organized an event for Boston-based artists with a panel of art conservators from varying specialties, “Creating Art to Last: A Conversation with Art Conservators.

I learned a lot about myself while running my painting business. It may come as a surprise to many, but I found that I was enjoying the managerial, policy-making, communication, and entrepreneurial work in my business far more than the technical work. Knowing this made it easier for me to see myself doing preventive conservation. Last spring I attended the Association of North American Graduate Programs in Art Conservation (ANAGPC) conference in Kingston, Ontario. My nametag slated me as an objects major and I found myself constantly correcting the designation when introducing myself to other graduate students and associated professors. I would explain to others that I was considering majoring in preventive conservation. The response was overwhelmingly positive. Pretty much everyone I spoke to acknowledged the importance of preventive conservation and the need for a specialization. The people I met pointed out the obvious passion I have for preventive conservation and were the final encouragement I needed to make my declaration.

JP: How is the preventive curriculum different from the existing WUDPAC curriculum for other specializations? Is there preventive coursework still for other majors and do preventive majors do treatment?

JW: Everyone has the same coursework for the first year.  Students get preventive experience in 2 blocks - at the beginning and at the end of the first year.  They also get preventive experience within their other blocks based upon their specializations. In the second year, the students are based in their specialization specific laboratories, guided by and working alongside their major supervisors. So, this year, Melissa’s home is in the preventive lab working on preventive projects while her classmates work on projects in their specialties. The course Preventive Conservation Research and Applications is open to all second year students. In spring 2019, 5 out of 10 students will take this preventive course. It combines taught sessions on a variety of preventive topics with independent preventive focused projects. These projects are usually done for institutions outside of Winterthur to broaden student understanding of how preventive conservation is practiced.

JP: Melissa, can you give me some examples of the type of work that you’ve been doing?

MK: I recently finished a course with Michael C. Henry in building diagnostics run by the Historic Preservation Department at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design (PennDesign). The course was an excellent introduction to building preservation, and provided me with some context and vocabulary to collaborate with professionals in this field as I move forward in my own career.

As part of a scientific research project, I will be studying the effects of a known fungistat on textiles using a variety of analytical equipment at the University of Delaware. As a part of this project, I am in the process of setting up a microbiological lab space that will aid in future mold research.I am also gaining skills in project management by helping to implement an experiment on mercury off-gassing and proper storage for tin-mercury amalgam mirrors from the Winterthur collection. As part of my specialization, I also accompany Joelle to meetings to see the day-to-day work of preventive conservation.

In addition, I am working to gain a broader view of the field through interviews with WUDPAC professors as well as preventive conservators in the US. The project has also included a literature review of core competencies of preventive conservators in an effort to help me think about how we define the line between a stabilization and interventive treatment..

JP: How many preventive students will you admit in each class in the future?

JW: People do not have to declare their major during acceptance.  There is no limit on how many majors can be in any specialty.

JP: Do you see this specialization having an impact on the curriculum of the undergraduate conservation major?

JW: The undergraduate program has always had a strong preventive component. There has been no impact on its content to date. However, now that the preventive lab is in the building, it makes an impact on undergraduates who see the space during portfolio day. It gives them new ideas of what they can do.

MK: I have found many pre-program students and interviewees express a strong interest in the preventive track.

JP: Where do you see students being placed in summer and third year internships?

JW: When the specialization was announced at the IIC Preventive Conservation: State of the Art conference, there was a lot of excitement and interest from attendants in taking preventive students as interns and fellows. There were institutions with formal preventive labs and preventive conservators. Many other places, museums and regional centers, have preventive programs even without labs. Private practices might be more difficult to coordinate but very interesting places to gain experience.

MK: I interned at the Brooklyn Museum last summer. My role was in objects conservation, but staff were very excited by my interest in the preventive projects like Oddy testing, housekeeping, installation and deinstallation, Integrated Pest Management, and environmental monitoring.

JP: Melissa, can you tell me about your favorite project so far?

MK: This spring semester I’m working on a project that is following up on last year’s work.  We had conducted a CAP-like survey for a public high school in Philadelphia that has a collection of objects from Africa and Oceania. I will be doing a care and handling and housekeeping session at the high school. I will also be working with the students to create instructional videos which will allow for a continuation of the cleaning program as the years go on. I am hoping to create didactics for pest identification to help the students be aware of problematic pests. The students seem excited about working with me and are eager to learn how we can bring science into the preservation of artwork. Hopefully it may inspire some of them to look into this career or at least have an appreciation for this type of work.

JP: Do you see graduates taking jobs in conservation specifically, or in allied professions such as collection care specialists/managers, conservation scientists, etc.?

JW: I have found anxiety from collection care specialists and allied professionals regarding whether the preventive conservator will take away existing jobs. I have spoken about and published on the availability of jobs and the need for preventive conservators as well as collection care specialists.  This is not a replacement of an existing role but rather an expansion.

M: There are diverse avenues available. I see myself as a generalist, possibly working in a museum as liaison between departments. As Joelle said… there is a lot of work to be done in this area and I hope to see the implementation of this major as a move towards its growth!

JP: What do you see as the trend for studying preventive conservation US and worldwide? Are there preventive majors elsewhere?

JW: In the UK there are currently two programs at Northumbria and Cardiff. There was one in France, although I’m not sure that it’s still in operation.  A group in Lima, Peru is also trying to establilsh a program.

MK: It doesn’t seem like there is a good accounting of programs worldwide.  In fact there was a debate at IIC last fall over how many are out there. Maybe this would be a good survey to do?

*If you are interested in learning more about some of the projects Melissa has been working on this year, have a look at her website.




03-07-2019 14:58

Jessica: We welcome real-world preventive conservation research questions! Send them our way.

03-03-2019 11:18

Thank you for the informative interview! A question for Joelle: can institutions with Preventive conservation research questions reach out to WUDPAC for help pursuing real-world problems?