ECPN International Training Interview with Netanya Schiff


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 Objects Conservator @Netanya Schiff who earned her BSc in Conservation Studies from the Marist College Florence Branch Campus (2015), MA in Principles of Conservation from the Institute of Archaeology, University College London (2016), and MSc in Conservation for Archaeology and Museums from the Institute of Archaeology, University College London (2018). Netanya is currently working with the Central Park Conservancy in New York.

Netanya Schiff preparing a plant fiber woven mat for transport – Image courtesy of the British Museum
Netanya Schiff preparing a plant fiber woven mat for transport  Image courtesy of the British Museum


Why did you pick your specialty?

I began my conservation training in Florence, Italy in fall 2012 with the intention of becoming an easel paintings conservator. In Italy, my courses covered easel painting, fresco, and polychrome sculpture conservation. In addition, I did a course in archaeological conservation . My final project concerned the conservation of a mixed-media sculpture. Through this project as well as my other courses I discovered that while I enjoyed making paintings as an artist, I was more drawn to objects as a conservator. 

Can you describe your training pathway?

My training pathway could be described as unconventional! I dropped out of community college when I was 18 and started working full-time, and later traveled quite a bit, living abroad in New Zealand and Australia. When I went back to school in my mid-twenties, I already had a strong fine arts background developed through courses taken in community college during my time in Washington State's “Running Start.” “Running Start” allowed me to take classes at the local community college for dual credits during my junior and senior years of high school and I completed a full set of foundation courses in painting, drawing and printmaking. I also took additional courses at an art atelier in Seattle, and a diploma course in Australia.

I had been made aware of the field of art conservation, funnily enough, from an ex-boyfriend who worked at the Frye Museum in Seattle, WA. On returning to university I wanted to follow a career path that would keep me connected to the world of art making and the sciences, while integrating a greater interest in world cultures developed during my years living abroad and traveling. 

I felt that conservation as a profession would sustain my interests and challenge me. I spent two years at community college in Seattle completing compulsory courses. After two years I transferred to a university with a branch campus in Florence, Italy. At the time I was applying, there were very few opportunities for undergraduate degrees in conservation in the United States (with the University of Delaware and Columbia College Chicago's programs being the only undergraduate programs available at the time to the best of my knowledge).  

Italy, however, was the best fit for me personally. Studying in Italy gave me the opportunity to learn a second language and experience life in another country and cultural context, which I considered an important addition to formal education. 

During my training in Italy, I came to realize that a graduate degree would be necessary if I wanted to be competitive in the job market, work in larger institutions, and fill knowledge gaps from my undergraduate degree. During this time I was in contact with a student who had completed the same course in Italy and gone on to the Institute of Archaeology, University College London’s MA program in Principles of Conservation. On my return to Seattle, I began interning part-time with a conservator in private practice who had also studied conservation at the Institute in the 1980’s. I applied for the program after talking to several graduates and was accepted that summer. In this way, my progression from undergraduate to graduate degree was actually very fluid, with all signs seemingly pointing to London. I was awarded my degree this November for my completion of the MSc program in Conservation for Archaeology and Museums, which follows the MA course in Principles of Conservation. During my training. I continued to volunteer in the collections at the university as well as Knole House and completed two full-time internships in my final year at the British Museums and Royal Museums Greenwich, respectively.  I am currently working as a research assistant under one of my tutors from the MSc course. 

Making a replica of a Caravaggio (left) and scaffold work in Florence, Italy (right) – Images courtesy of Netanya Schiff

Making a replica of a Caravaggio (left) and scaffold work in Florence, Italy (right)
Images courtesy of Netanya Schiff

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

I made the choice to go overseas very consciously, motivated not just by my desire to study conservation and pursue a career in the field, but also to continue to broaden my worldview through living abroad and to learn a second language. 

To that end, I had very specific personal goals which have been met fully. Having the opportunity to live abroad is a privilege and can be life-changing. Being placed in Europe makes travel between cultures and countries fast and economic. It also allows students in arts-related fields to see many important works in their original context and provides a chance to hear and respect other voices and perspectives. 

Conservation/Restoration as a discipline is older in Europe, and there is much to be learned from the different approaches taken to the theory, teaching, and practice of conservation between different countries. I have made many friends and professional contacts I would not have met otherwise through my years of studying in Italy and the UK. 

While I would stress that no program is perfect, I was able to come out of both my undergraduate and graduate programs taking the best they had to offer with me, as well as gaining irreplaceable life experience. In addition, in both Italy and the UK I worked with tutors and supervisors from some of the top institutions internationally and feel more connected to the international conservation community than I would have had I remained in the US. As stated before, I spent a number of years living abroad before my training. Being connected to an international network was very important to me and would have been no matter what field I had chosen.

Relaying gilding at the MSc Labs, University College London – Image courtesy of UCL
Relaying gilding at the MSc Labs, University College London Image courtesy of UCL


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

The two biggest disadvantages from my perspective of studying overseas are related to cost and network. Cost is much more of a consideration for graduate degrees, as many undergraduate qualifications in conservation overseas, particularly in Europe, are less expensive with the cost of living being more or less equal depending on lifestyle and location. However, language barriers may make these programs inaccessible for US students. 

Many programs allow US students to receive financial aid and take out US government student loans, both of which I did during my studies. However, cost remains an important consideration, as students cannot supplement their living costs by living with parents or relatives (unless they are lucky enough to have family internationally), and living in cities like London is expensive. Working during studies is an option, and most student visas allow up to 20 hours of work during term time and 40 hours a week out of term, however, this will not fully cover the cost of living. I was able to get through school with a mix of student aid and loans, two years at my local community college while living with my father, and help from my parents who had put aside money for my formal education. Conservation is not a high-earning field, so individuals will need to consider if they can afford to study abroad based on their individual circumstances. I will note, however, that while graduate programs in conservation are funded in the US, gaining the prerequisites required and years of volunteer and internship work needed to be considered for entry are generally not. Conservation qualifications, at least in the academic context, are a sacrifice and represent a financial burden during training years in all contexts. 

The second major disadvantage of studying overseas relates to personal network and recognition after graduation. Much of my network and reputation has been built up through working closely with professors and supervisors in Europe. This means that transitioning into the US job market can represent a challenge to myself and others graduating from overseas programs as we attempt to develop relationships with conservators in the US and establish ourselves within the field. Depending on the institution, there may not be a recognition of the degree, and a strong portfolio and research of conservation practice in the US context will be needed. However, I personally know many students who have studied with me or before me in both Italy and the United Kingdom, who have gone on to successful careers in the US. 

It is important to note here that graduation from an overseas institution does not guarantee a work visa after completion of the degree. The current global climate around immigration is in deadlock and students should not enter overseas programs on the assumption that they will be able to work in those countries after graduation, although this does happen in some cases.  

There is one last consideration, which is more personal and relates to the stress and anxiety that can be experienced when living abroad for long stretches of time. Coping with culture shock on arrival in a new country (and reverse culture shock on return to your home) as well as being away from loved ones is challenging. I knew from experience that I could cope with this stress, but it is something to consider as it will inevitably come up at different points during your studies.  

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

I have learned from experience that studying, interning, or working internationally are invaluable opportunities and would recommend them to anyone in the field from any country or training program. My advice would be to consider carefully what type of conservator you want to be and align your training pathway with these goals. What specializations are you interested in? Do you want to do research and publish? Are you obsessed with ceramics or dynamic objects, or maybe you want to do hard analysis? Look for programs that shine in these areas. Ask yourself what else you would like to learn or experience along the way in addition to your academic studies. What additional skills do you want to pick up? Different people will have different goals and personal priorities: some will have very specific programs they want to enter, others will be confined geographically due to family or work commitments. Research programs in depth and talk to students about their experiences. Remember that any training pathway into conservation is labour-intensive. As one of my professors warned me on entering the MSc program at UCL, it is a marathon not a sprint. 

Removing ingrained cleaning product (brasso) from a lighthouse lantern – Image courtesy of the Royal Museums Greenwich
Removing ingrained cleaning product (brasso) from a lighthouse lantern
Image courtesy of the Royal Museums Greenwich

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07-08-2019 03:51

I enjoyed reading this interview and although I know that the UCL program is much changed since I did my degree there, Netanya's advice well represents my experiences training abroad.  I look forward to more posts in this series. Good work ECPN!