ECPN Interview: Architecture with Dona Yu

By Keara Teeter posted 06-10-2020 08:05


The Emerging Conservation Professionals Network (ECPN) is conducting a diverse series of Specialty Group Interviews  to promote awareness and a clearer understanding of different pathways into specializations that require particular training. The first installment of this series began with East Asian Art in 2016. Installments continued with AIC's Electronic Media Group (EMG) in 2017, Wooden Artifact Group (WAG) in 2018, Libraries and Archives in 2019, and Photographic Materials Group (PMG) in 2020. 

Now we are interviewing conservation professionals from AIC's Architecture Specialty Group (ASG). We’ve asked our interviewees to share some thoughts about their career paths. We hope this information will inspire emerging conservation professionals and provide valuable insight into these areas of our professional field.

For our first interview, we spoke with architectural conservator Dona Yu (@Dona Yu).

Dona Yu (ASG ECPN Interview)

Cleaning the reredos made of Caen limestone, Trinity Church (Photo credit: Yiyang Li)

Please tell us a little bit about yourself. 
My name is Dona Yu. I’m from Bay Shore, NY, a town located on the south shore of Long Island. Up until a little over a month ago when nonessential businesses were shut down due to COVID-19, I worked as an assistant conservator at the New York based company EverGreene Architectural Arts (I was there for 3.5 years).

How were you first introduced to conservation, and why did you decide to pursue conservation?
My interest in conservation began during spring semester of my freshman year of college, when I realized that biology, although interesting, was not for me. Ever since high school I have had this interest in art; I took classes in studio art, graphic design, and photography. At that age, I was not aware that science and art could be intertwined in the field, and frankly, I did not believe that it was possible. I did a tremendous amount of research on jobs that combined two of my favorite subjects, art and science: I discovered the career of an art conservator.

Of all specializations, what contributed to your decision to pursue architectural conservation?
I pursued it because I love architecture and wanted to learn more about its conservation and preservation as a whole. I wanted the opportunity to be able to work in/on historic buildings. It is a real privilege to treat materials and works of art in these amazing structures.

What has been your training pathway?  Please list any universities, apprenticeships, technical experience, and any related jobs or hobbies.

As an undergrad at Stony Brook University (2009-2013), I majored in chemistry and minored in art history. I also studied abroad in Florence, Italy, one summer while I was in college; I enrolled in a restoration workshop course, taught by Lorenzo Casamenti who has over 30 years of conservation and restoration experience. (The majority of our assignments involved paintings and sculptures; we even got to work on a painting from the 17th century!) 

I attended Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (2013-2015) and earned my master’s degree in historic preservation with a conservation focus. The summer between this two-year program, I interned as a museum technician at Scotty’s Castle, a historic house museum in Death Valley National Park. There, I learned more about preventive conservation and how to clean and maintain a wide array of museum objects and material types.

After grad school, I had a few short-term opportunities. I volunteered as an intern at the Neighborhood Preservation Center, a non-profit organization based in the East Village in NYC. I also worked as a project crew leader in a temporary seasonal (summer) position at Woodlawn Cemetery and Conservancy, a position sponsored by the World Monuments Fund. At Woodlawn, I taught basic stone conservation and documentation to high school interns. I didn’t find a long-term position in conservation right away; it took about a year and a half after graduation for me to be hired as a conservator at EverGreene.

Are there any particular skills that you feel are important or unique to your discipline?
Having knowledge and a good understanding of different types of materials, e.g. what they are composed of and the methods of deterioration. In architectural conservation, the ability to identify a material from visual cues is useful, because you have to be a detective of sorts to figure out what the material is and what happened to it in order to treat it properly. I think it’s also important to develop hand skills because the variety of materials we treat can be quite fragile/delicate and you have to handle them with the correct technique.

What are some of your current projects, research, or interests?
I can’t speak to any current projects, but a few projects in the past include repairing and inpainting a ceiling mural and treating mosaics at Cincinnati Union Terminal; surveying grave markers and cleaning stone at Trinity Church in New York City; and removing murals and cleaning the back of canvas at a museum in Washington DC.

In your opinion, what is an important research area or need in your specialization?
I think there needs to be more pre-program, internship, and/or entry-level opportunities in architectural conservation. This way, whether someone is just starting out or wanting to change their career path later in life, there would be a possibility of doing that.

Do you have any advice for prospective emerging conservators who would like to pursue this specialization?
I’m hesitant to give any specific advice as I’ve only been in the field for a few years, but I would say always do your best and have an open mind to experiences in/related to this field. Don’t get too discouraged when things don’t go as planned, things will work out the way they should.

Losantville Dining Room, Cincinnati Union Terminal
In progress cleaning of the ceiling mural in the Losantville Dining Room, Cincinnati Union Terminal.
The discolored, yellow-brown varnish in the background shows what the mural looked like before it was cleaned.
The foreground shows the mural after it was cleaned. (Photo credit: Dona Yu)