ECPN International Training Interview Series with Sue Donovan


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.

What is Your Name, Specialty, Training program, and Current position?

Sue Donovan, Book and Paper Conservation, currently Rare Book Conservator at the University of Virginia Libraries. I studied at the Universite de Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne, specializing in Book and Paper. The final degree is termed a Master conservation-restauration des biens culturels, the equivalent in English being “Masters in the preservation and conservation of cultural heritage.” Conservators in France call themselves conservateurs-restaurateurs or simply restaurateurs since conservateur is the equivalent of our curator. The typical program is 3 years of classes and one internship year. The years are called Licence 2, Licence 3, Master 1 and Master 2 (internship year). After your Licence 3 year, you have a certificate in Preservation des biens culturels. At the end of your Master 2 year, you must return to France to defend a thesis that you have identified and worked on during your internship(s), resulting in your Master conservation-restauration des biens culturels.

Why did you pick your specialty?

I grew up around books and was enveloped in an art and literature-loving family. My mother was a storyteller at the local library so we spent afternoons and summers among the stacks. My family didn’t have a TV either, so books, drawing, and dreaming were my main forms of entertainment. My first college job was working in a library as a page, which quickly turned into a job as a student technician in the preservation department.  I got the bug for conservation, and I pursued conservation experiences in paintings, objects, and library materials, while still working a few hours a week at the university library. By the time I applied to the Sorbonne program for conservation, my specialty had truly picked me: my experience and my love for books destined me to specialize in book and paper.

Can you describe your training pathway?

My training began in Chicago where, as a student technician in preservation, I dusted and stamped new acquisitions, measured and fitted pamphlets to binders, measured books for boxes, and treated leather for red rot, among other tasks. My supervisor noticed my enthusiasm for these tasks and told me about the conservation profession. I started looking for internships and other kinds of training in my area. I took every opportunity that I could find: visiting a private painting conservation studio, accepting a two-month internship in objects conservation at the Field Museum, learning advanced book conservation techniques a few hours a week at The Newberry Library, and volunteering at a regional conservation center in the registrar & collection management department. I took general chemistry my senior year of college and organic chemistry the following summer as an intensive course in order to complete my application requirements for conservation programs. In an effort to pay rent while taking the chemistry course, I also worked almost full time in the preservation department at the University of Chicago, which made it hard to feel like I was succeeding at either. When I received my acceptance letter from the Sorbonne program, I was thus incredibly and happily surprised. My application to the program had been part of a Fulbright proposal, as a way to combine my love of the French language and culture with my desire to pursue conservation. I learned that while I did not receive the grant, I had been accepted to the Sorbonne, so my decision to study in France went hand-in-hand with my professional and personal motivations. I had lived in France a year after high school, learning the language, and I continued my French studies in college, double majoring in Art History and Romance Languages (French and Italian).  

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

The people I met- classmates, professors, and conservators in private practice or institutions- marked me indelibly as a person and a professional. The head of book and paper at the Sorbonne, Claude Laroque, is a woman tirelessly devoted to her students. The book and paper program at the Sorbonne is well regarded, and that is due entirely to her reputation as an educator and to the students who benefit from her tutelage. Similar to American programs, the French programs for conservation are notoriously difficult to get into, and my classmates were humble, dedicated, talented, and enthusiastic. In applying for the program, you have to know what specialty you want to go into. I sent in a portfolio of my previous conservation work, letters of recommendation, a personal statement, and examples of personal artwork. Local applicants to the Sorbonne and the Institut National du Patrimoine must present these materials as well as complete in-person tasks such as color matching, drawing, and basic chemistry questions. The first year of the program is quite general, but in learning about all the different kinds of materials and their degradations, you form a bond with your classmates as you study and learn together. My class was roughly 20 people, with about 2 to 4 people per specialty, but class size varied from year to year. There is no real campus of the Sorbonne, so having a class that was friendly and considerate provided a comforting envelope for me in a big, foreign city.

Being able to study both books and paper is definitely an advantage of the program. You can decide to focus on photographs if you declare your interest in the first year so that Claude can schedule classes for you.  As a general rule, though, you learn book and paper conservation practices at the same time. Claude teaches the paper conservation classes herself and arranges for visiting professors in private practice or from institutions to teach the fundamental aspects of book conservation. She also arranges for her students to learn the art of bookbinding and printmaking, which gives students important background knowledge when approaching a treatment.

As a Book and Paper person, I benefited from access to the Bibliotheque Nationale de France (BNF), which was just across the river from the Sorbonne building. I took bookbinding classes with professionals there and at a satellite location, and I was also able to study and research at the BNF as a student of conservation. In addition, Claude worked at the Centre de Recherche sur la Conservation (CRC, formerly CRCC), so we took classes with conservation scientists and had full access to the CRC’s robust research library.

Another benefit to living in Paris was access to the wealth of cultural heritage in the city. As part of my program, I was able to go to the Louvre for class and to tour the conservation science laboratory there. We visited both conservators in private practice and conservators working in institutions in Paris, where there is a significant concentration of conservators. We worked with small museums to conduct condition assessments, and the directors of all the specialties had close ties with museums and private collections in the area that allowed us to work on their items in a mutually beneficial relationship.

In addition to all of these extremely important advantages, I count my training program, internships, and experiences in different locations as beneficial attributes: seeing how conservators in diverse institutions approach treatments informs my own approach. I received a great education at the Sorbonne as a result of the program, my director, the city I lived in, and my classmates.

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

Being far away from my family and close friends was very difficult, especially with the time change. It cannot be overstated that a different country means a different culture, and that was also difficult for me. It was a life- and personality-changing experience to be the “foreigner.” No matter how well I spoke French, I still had an accent, which made it hard for me to feel globally accepted. I made lifelong friends who mean the world to me, but I did struggle with depression and loneliness.

Because there is no true campus for the Sorbonne program, finding a place to study can be quite difficult. My classmates lived all over the city, and where they studied didn’t always make sense for me. It took a while to get used to how students in Paris studied and to figure out where I was allowed to study. Eventually, though, I discovered that the University of Paris system has library branches tucked into parts of the city that I could access.

Paris is EXPENSIVE. The cost of attending the university is pretty cheap since it is subsidized by the government, but living expenses in Paris can be quite high. The French government is very supportive, however, even of foreign students, and I applied for and received help with rent. I roomed with one of my classmates, her boyfriend, and another friend the last two years of my program, and I supported myself by giving English lessons when I could and with help from my family for expenses.  

Once the program ends, an important disadvantage for non-EU citizens is that your visa expires. It was another intimidating, stressful layer to the graduation process. There being no true equivalent to the fellowship programs in the US and UK, I was anxious that I wouldn’t be able to find stable work or a sponsor for a work visa. I thought I would like to live in France post-graduation, but as the years went on it became clear that it wouldn’t be a good fit for me. Witnessing my classmates starting or joining private practices, I struggled with how I would make a living in a bureaucratic system I didn’t understand, so my plan-ahead personality and sense of panic impelled me to apply for fellowships in the US. Staying abroad to work is definitely an option for US citizens, but at the time it was not the right choice for me. Finally, as other expats have mentioned, another important disadvantage to studying abroad is the loss of a US-based network and the hard work necessary to build a new one when the program ends.

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

Be mindful of your decision. You need to have a mastery of French, not just basic knowledge because you have to take very technical classes all in French. You need to be able to afford to live in Paris. Hopefully, you can find classmates to share a flat with after a year or so like I did. The French government has an agreement with the US that allows American students to receive help for housing if they are enrolled in French University programs, but it only goes so far. Do your due diligence and read everything on the consulate websites. You don’t have to know the tax code, but having some knowledge of what is expected will help you. Ask for help from your colleagues and classmates. You must be extremely dedicated, as with any graduate program. Do not go if you think it will involve visiting museums every day and sipping coffee and eating croissants. It is hard work, and you will have to work even harder as a foreign student. You’ll have to be on top of your visa status and read all of the fine print. You have to renew your visa every year, even when you go on your internship year. No matter where you decide you want to work, you have to work hard to make strong connections early on. Everyone else will have an advantage, so make friends wherever you can--in Europe and in the States. Remember that you are lucky to be there. Be compassionate with yourself. Enjoy the wine, enjoy the cheese, enjoy the culture, and try to be yourself.

A view of the Book and Paper Studio in the Sorbonne Program


Another view of the Book and Paper Studio in the Sorbonne Program