The Emerging Conservation Professionals Network (ECPN) works to serve ECPs at all levels, from pre-program to early career. This blog series aims to highlight pre-program experiences and opportunities through interviews with internship supervisors from a wide range of specialties. These individuals have been selected for interviews due to their track record as excellent pre-program mentors. In this series we hope to highlight successful approaches to pre-program internships and mentoring while also providing insight on how pre-program individuals can best prepare to enter the conservation profession.
As a part of this series, we are promoting the AIC’s Education and Training Committee (ETC) Guidelines for Pre-Program Internships and ECPN Compensation Resources. ETC guidelines are intended to aid internship supervisors and interns in defining goals, parameters, and expectations for pre-program internships. ECPN compensation data was compiled after reviewing public postings of pre-program, graduate, and post-graduate positions. The ECPN spreadsheets are available upon request and can be a valuable tool in compensation negotiations.
For our first interview in the series, ECPN reached out to Anne Downey who is the Head of Conservation at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Please tell us about yourself and your organization (type of institution or private practice, geographic region, size, etc). How many other conservators do you work with and what specialties are represented?
I’m the Head of Conservation at the Library & Museum of the American Philosophical Society (APS) and a 1993 graduate of the Art Conservation Department from what was then called SUNY, College at Buffalo. My team and I are responsible for the care of materials held by our special collections library and archive. We’re a somewhat small non-profit in the historic district of Philadelphia. The majority of our materials date from the 18th century through the 21st century (we also actively collect rare volumes and manuscripts). Our primary collecting areas are early American history, ethnography and linguistics, and the history of science. Our website says that we have over thirteen million manuscripts, 350,000 volumes and bound periodicals, 250,000 images, and thousands of hours of audio tape – although, I think this number needs to be adjusted for our recent acquisition of the books and manuscripts previously held by the David Library of the American Revolution.
We have two other conservators in the department: Anisha Gupta, who majored in paper conservation and minored in photo conservation at the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC 2016) and Renée Wolcottwho majored in Library and Archives (WUDPAC 2011). My own concentration while in school was works on paper. So, among the three of us, we cover the complete array of paper, photo, and parchment-based works that we see in the APS special collections.
When creating internships, what resources do you turn to for guidance and what training methods do you utilize?
I started supervising interns at the APS in 2004 and passed the baton of primary internship supervisor to Renée almost two years ago. The good news for me is that, now, I get to do what I love best – interact and guide nascent conservators who have an interest in the conservation of paper-based materials. Renée’s role as primary supervisor focuses on managing administrative tasks, ensuring that the intern is experiencing a meaningful internship, and fitting well into the lab and the APS. Anisha and I enter into the mix when it comes to supervising specific projects. We rotate the projects among the three of us, so the intern gets to experience three different versions of conservation training.
My own method of training is perhaps annoyingly Socratic (and also is hugely dependent on the level of the intern’s previous experience). With an object on the bench, and with all the tools necessary for examination and documentation, I essentially say, “OK have at it – go ahead and write a condition report.” I sometimes get a blank look (in which case I quickly back-pedal). Once the first draft of the report is written, I take a look at the object and print a hard copy of the report to scribble my comments on.
A huge part of what we do as conservators is to ensure that we are examining and potentially treating this object for a specific purpose, a specific end-goal. Is this object being reviewed prior to digitization? Is the object likely to be handled extensively by readers, who may not have been trained in handling by my department? Is the object for exhibition in our Gallery? These questions all lead to potentially different treatment types. But first, none of these decisions can be made without a solid understanding of the material aspect of the object, the perceived “problems” and the context of the object within our collections and/or the world at large.
Once a condition report is created and the intern has done photographic documentation (we do our own photo-doc in the department), I ask the intern to do the appropriate testing for the potential treatment. I must say that none of this is linear for me. I usually go back and forth quite a bit between condition reporting and testing. And of course, the curator for the object is often called in to consult during this discovery process. If the object is complex, sometimes one has to put it away to let the mind actively work on other tasks, while pondering the problems in the background.
Although the Socratic method is my style, I believe others who teach in my department run more toward didacticism. So, there is hope for those interns who may be internally screaming, “Please, just tell me what to do…”
My favorite resource is one that my first third year intern, Jessica Silverman (WUDPAC), gave to me in 2007. It’s a comprehensive list of all competencies in paper conservation that an intern should be exposed to over the course of their complete training. It’s broken down into categories and covers:
- Fundamental treatments, which includes assorted types of mending
- Various systems for removing attachments
- Media consolidation and other additions
- Special cases, like mold aspiration
- Related activities, such as photodocumentaton
What skills do you look for in prospective interns?
We look for the highest skill level and conservation competencies that are available on any given year. So, if there happen to be rising third-year conservation school students who are interested in learning from us, or recent grads, we offer the internship to them. Pre-program interns are next on the list if there are no Paper or Library and Archive students who have applied for the year.
In a nutshell, high level hand skills are top of the list for me. Then, preference will be given to applicants who have previous library conservation treatment experience. It’s great if interns can largely work independently but also know when to stop and ask questions. Questions! I love questions! But this self-knowledge can be hard to recognize and then execute. After all these years, I myself still sometimes have a hard time stopping a treatment procedure for re-assessment.