ECPN International Training Interview with Kelly Conlin


This blog post series looks 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. 

This interview features Kelly Conlin (@Kelly Conlin), Chemistry Technician at Element Materials Technology (Duarte, California). Kelly earned her Master’s degree (M.A.C.) from the Queen’s University Art Conservation Program Science Stream (Ontario, Canada).

Kelly Conlin
Kelly Conlin (Photo by Matthew Carr)

Why did you pick your specialty?

My specialty is art conservation science. I came across the niche field somewhat by chance and instantly knew that was what I wanted to pursue. I was a declared chemistry major and nerd who had an ever-growing interest in art and art history. An amazing Italian Renaissance professor covered conservation projects as part of his course and I saw a connection between what I was currently learning in my chemistry courses and thought “I could do that,” then blindly stumbled about for three years trying to figure out how exactly to “do that.” I’m not sure if I ever made a fully conscience decision in picking my specialty, I just saw an opportunity to combine both of my interests, have the best of both worlds, and went from there.

Can you describe your training pathway?

I have two Bachelor degrees, one in Chemistry and one in Art History and Visual Culture. Double majoring in two subjects that do not overlap meant that I spent a 5th year as an undergrad. The summer between my senior and 5th year, I was fortunate to receive an internship at the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute as an Analytical Group Studies Intern. That pre-program experience was invaluable when applying to graduate programs. I spent two years at Queen’s University in the Science Stream, interning in the Conservation Science Lab at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I am currently gaining workplace experience, and taking a break from hardcore academia, as a chemstiry testing technician before applying for PhD programs in Chemistry or Materials Science at universities that have a history of supporting museum- and art conservation-based research. My training is far from complete.

What were the advantages of your program of choice: personal/professional?

The Queen’s Program allows you to apply to a specific stream. This application structure worked greatly in my favor as a conservation science-geared candidate compared to other programs which have general conservation training working towards a specialty. Compared to applicants in the treatment streams, I had very little experience working in art conservation, but I was an ideal candidate when applying for the Science Stream. Something else very special about Queen’s University is that they take a special interest in the Art Conservation students’ applications. Something had gone wrong with my letters of recommendation and I was interviewed with an incomplete application. Originally, my application was rejected by the algorithm that shifts through the “met requirements.” I discovered that even if your application is rejected by the computer system, those submitted for Art Conservation get tagged and passed along to the department to review, regardless. If it was not for that protocol my application would never have been seen. The program itself is a quick and compact two year program. As a science/research student, I was required to submit and defend a thesis. I thoroughly enjoyed designing an experiment, executing the treatment, and writing the thesis An Experimental Gel-Based Treatment of Iron Gall Ink Corrosion Halos. There were challenges but, overall, it was a rewarding experience. Along with taking the science courses, I was able to audit many of the treatment lectures which allowed me to connect with my classmates and gave me a wider range of knowledge with regard to objects and conservation as a whole. I was always welcome to view treatment demonstrations for paper, paintings, and artifacts. I was able to handle and study the treatment collections. There were lots of hands-on opportunities to become more familiar with how specific artworks or artifacts were made. My pre-program experience had me analyzing samples and I rarely got to see the object in person, let alone handle them, so this was exciting and I am grateful the treatment stream professors were so receptive to me. The professors and students planned supplemental workshops to the courses, and I participated in those as well. My favorite workshops were for cyanotypes and gilding. My second year we were also invited to the Days of Fire metal-work and forging workshop hosted by SUNY Buffalo Art Conservation Program. 

I was gifted two thesis advisors, Alison Murray (Science) and Rosaleen Hill (Paper). Where Alison was my primary advisor, guiding my coursework and assisting with my thesis’ timelines, scope, and methods of analysis, it was Rosaleen who inspired my thesis topic and worked with me through the treatment procedure I proposed yet had no idea how to carry out. Having two advisors was extremely beneficial to me and was newly enacted for my year. I worked closely with the conservation students over the course of both years, where the science student before me didn’t as much, and I had a full thesis proposal and treatment plan ready by the end of my first semester, where the student prior to me researched topics for two semesters before inspiration struck. Being science based and relatively new to the field of art conservation, I was glad to have Rosaleen as a guiding force from the treatment side early on to help establish a feasible and relevant project, then guide me through the treatment. Once I started writing my thesis, Alison made sure the introductory explanations to my experiment and procedural methods were thorough as well as representative of all the work I put in and aided me extensively whenever I stumbled summarizing my color spectrophotometry results. 

What were the disadvantages of your program of choice: personal/professional? 

The main disadvantage was primarily personal; being a coastal-based California girl my entire life, the season of winter was new to me. Snow was foreign, and it took more adjusting to than I'd thought. On a more professional level, the program at Queen’s is well resourced and geared for the treatment streams, but not as much for the Science Stream. For the 10-12 students admitted every year there are two spots reserved for conservation science students, but that does not mean every year will have a conservation science student in the class. I was the only science student in my class, and there were no incoming science students my second year. I was lucky to have had a second year science student to my first year, and I would have struggled to find my bearings within the program without their guidance. I was the guinea pig for trying out two thesis advisors and I think that helped a lot but did not always compensate for the lack of resources. My main grievance was that I did not have my own work space. My materials were squirrelled away and spread between four different rooms and three separate floors. I often spent time in the paper lab during the weekdays sharing desks, working at the center treatment table, or shadowing students doing treatments that pertained to my research. If there was no room to work I would stay home or leave after class in the morning. Discovering I was much less productive doing that, I began to work in the breakroom often enough that my fellow classmates joked that it was my office. I spent weekends carrying out my experiment because that was when the labs were mostly empty. This came with the disadvantage that if I ever hit a roadblock there was rarely anyone there to guide me. I would have to put my experiment on hold, get theoretical assistance during the week, and hope that it worked in practice the next weekend. I would temporarily commandeer workbenches for 12-16 hours at a time and have to dismantle everything at the end of the day because the student whose space I was using may need it the next day. I made myself comfortable in the artifacts, paintings, and paper labs, which was good for building relationships with my fellow classmates but a nuisance with regard to my productivity. 

Between the 20 or so students in the program, there was some expected competition for resources: photolab, the Olympus microscope (with the camera and mercury bulb), hood space, but by far the worst was the environmental chambers. Between my thesis experiment and the second-years’ research projects, which they had to finish before their second summer internship started, these chambers were in hot demand. I worked around other students’ schedules and often ceded my chamber time, reasoning I had more time and flexibility than my classmates. The chambers also needed a fair amount of maintenance. They were sometimes out of working order for at least a week, sometimes more, depending on the problem or the availability of a repair technician. Towards the middle of my second year when I started to feel the time crunch, they were never up and working fast enough. They were an incredible resource to have onsite when they were working, and I used them repeatedly as I continually adjusted my treatment procedure during the course of my research. When something went wrong, it felt like a nightmare and they were the greatest source of stress during my tenure at Queen’s.

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

Experience and references are everything. I had an amazing reference that aided in securing my internship at the Smithsonian, which in turn made me an ideal candidate for the Science Stream at Queen’s. I wish I had opened up a dialogue about my potential thesis topic prior to the start of my first semester and had access to or known about more conservation resources. I realize I have been very lucky with the opportunities in my life and all I can advise is to continue working towards a final goal. I am not currently working in art conservation science but the experience and skills I am learning are transferable and applicable. That’s the wonderful thing about the field of art conservation as a whole, it is dynamic and accepts people and professionals from all walks of life. I am still working towards gaining all the experience and education needed to meet the requirements for a full time position as a conservation scientist, so the best advice I can give is to have patience and persistence.