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 Diana Jaskierny (@Diana Jaskierny) who is currently a Paintings Conservation Fellow at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Diana earned her Postgraduate Diploma in the Conservation of Easel Paintings from the The Courtauld Institute of Art.
Why did you pick your specialty?
Early on I was going back and forth between objects and paintings. One of my Bachelor’s degree majors was studio art, focusing on painting, and I had always been interested in historic materials and techniques of paintings. However, most of my pre-program work focused in objects conservation due to the opportunities available to me at the time. For the longest time I thought my specialty would be objects, because that’s all I really knew, and that’s what my portfolio was comprised of. Once I was given the opportunity to work on a couple of paintings, however, I realized that this instead was what I was truly passionate about, both in treatment and in technical examination and research.
Can you describe your training pathway?
I was first introduced to art conservation in high school when one of my own paintings was damaged. My art teacher encouraged me to do some research on how to repair it. Thankfully, it was an easy “treatment” and was fully successful! In my undergraduate degree at Dominican University (River Forest, IL), I double majored in Studio Art and Art History, writing my Art History Bachelor’s thesis on ethical case studies in art conservation. A career in conservation was my goal, but by that point, I had already been warned numerous times that it is a hard field to break into. My first graduate degree got me one step closer though; it was a Master’s degree in Art History with a Museum Studies certificate from The University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee. One requirement for this certificate was an internship at a museum or gallery. I immediately contacted the Milwaukee Art Museum and inquired about the possibility of interning in their conservation department. In the end, I was able to intern there on and off for three years, focusing mostly on objects conservation. From this program and the internship, I was able to learn a great deal about working in a museum and, more specifically, working in conservation.
After graduating from my MA, I worked on my chemistry prerequisites while completing short-term internships at various private conservation studios. With these internships I wanted to focus more on paintings conservation, and I was able to complete a brief internship in New York to assist after Hurricane Sandy, which included general surveying and surface cleanings of paintings with water damage. During this time, I also enrolled in the Art and Materials Conservation Bachelor’s program at Columbia College Chicago (as a 2nd BA) and applied to the Buffalo and Queen’s programs. I interviewed at Buffalo that year but was not accepted. Instead, I continued on in the Columbia College program, which took me to Italy in 2013-14. There I received a certificate in Applied Restoration and Conservation from Florence’s Istituto Lorenzo de Medici. About half of this program focused on the ethics of conservation, chemistry specific to conservation, and historic painting techniques (i.e. replicas). The other half of the program focused on treatment of art, and included courses in easel paintings, wall paintings, polychrome objects, and furniture. That year taught me not only about conservation, but specifically gave me great insight into conservation practices in Italy, and historic treatments that are found on paintings today.
It was during my time in Florence that I applied to the Buffalo and Queen’s programs again and decided to apply to a couple of the UK easel painting conservation programs too. I was shocked to receive an interview at The Courtauld the first time I applied, and immediately fell in love with the school, the program, and London. That year I also interviewed at Buffalo, but even before hearing from them, I was accepted into The Courtauld program.
What were the advantages of your program of choice: personal/professional?
The very obvious answer here is that it was a chance to live in Europe for an extended period of time! I was able to go on study trips with the department to Italy and Austria where we visited countless conservation labs and studios. I flew to a conference in Paris where I met numerous conservators with whom I discussed my dissertation research on categorizing crack patterns of Knole House’s Brown Gallery portrait panel paintings. And I participated on a technical art history project that took me to Norway for research and the opportunity to examine a Manet. Being in Europe made these types of research trips all the more achievable!
When looking at the specifics of the program, attending a graduate program in the UK is so very different than attending one in the US. In the UK, a standard Master’s degree is one year, while a PhD is three years. The Courtauld easel paintings conservation degree is a three year degree called a Postgraduate Diploma (PGDip). When I interviewed there, I asked how this differs from a Master’s, and was told that in the case of The Courtauld’s Easel Paintings PGDip, this degree is considered somewhere between an MA and PhD. Essentially it’s longer than a UK Master’s, but is not three solid years of research, like in a PhD. Of course, it’s much more complex than that and deals with funding, examinations, and many other components, but being three full years with research projects, in-depth treatments, and a formal dissertation, it falls within its own category.
Another advantage of going to a UK program is that most of their conservation programs focus on one specialty. This means that students have three years learning that program’s specialty, but it also means applicants have to know what they want to specialize in before starting the program. With The Courtauld’s Easel Paintings PGDip, all five of our instructors (“tutors” in the UK) were paintings conservators or scientists focusing on paintings conservation. Because of this, and because there is often more than one way to approach any treatment, we could have five differing opinions on what should be done. That forces students to dive into research and testing to be able to both make a decision on treatment and defend that decision. I cannot speak for other programs around the world, but I can say that this structure forces a great amount of independent study and creates independent thinkers.
And one final advantage, because of the location in central London, conservation and scientific labs were all around us. This meant that there were numerous resources we could contact as we conducted our research, both for our treatments and for our dissertation and research projects.
What were the disadvantages of your program of choice: personal/professional?
Training in the UK with the intention of returning to the US after graduation meant that networking was extremely important and possibly more challenging than if I had trained in the US. Because of the UK academic year (October to July), I was unable to attend any AIC conferences during those three years. I had to be strategic with my summer internships, always having at least one in the US in order to form and maintain professional connections. Being an “unknown” while looking for a job is a nightmare.
While The Courtauld program is well known by name, not everyone in the US is familiar with the academic structure it has in comparison to the US programs. For example, while US grad school generally has rigid class schedules, whether in conservation or other areas of study, at The Courtauld student schedules aren’t dictated by weekly classes. There were lectures, often one or two per topic, but not weekly, and the rest of the time was studio work and research, more like an independent study. Coming from the US and having gone through a US grad program previously, this style of education was definitely a new experience and one that took some getting used to.
And as mentioned before, The Courtauld is a three year program with all three years at the institute. This means that there is no 3rd Year Internship, as is done in the US. And that also means that it was important to learn as much as possible about museum work during summer internships. Thankfully in my case, I already had the Museum Studies certificate from before, but that’s of course not the norm.
What advice do you have for pre-programmers considering a similar path?
Most Americans I know who have completed a UK program have returned to the US after graduation. Partially this is to be closer to home again, but this is also because it is incredibly difficult to get hired on as a conservator in the UK if you are a foreigner – and this was pre-Brexit! If you are an American and plan on returning to the US after graduation, I highly recommend spending your summers interning in the US and building professional connections. Also, I highly recommend joining regional conservation guilds and attending as many meetings that you can, both before and after completing the graduate program. Presenting at these conferences is even better! Building your professional network is always a smart idea, and getting your name and face out there will help when you return. Also, see if you can find any US conservators who have completed the programs you are looking at as they might have useful information on how they managed finding US placement after UK training, and simply their experience at the program.