Ellen’s Path Into Conservation

December 14, 2008


Pig on the path (Guilin, China 2006)

Pig on the path (Guilin, China 2006)

I’m always interested in hearing this story from other people: how did you end up in your profession?  I’ll write mine here, both for the curious but especially for anyone who is considering going into conservation.  As a kid, I did well in both art and science classes, and vaguely hoped for a path in college that would combine both.  My father and grandfather were both dentists (I began dental assisting at age 13) and for a while I thought I might want to become a surgeon.  My dad really enjoyed the science and math parts of the brain…I remember him taking a calculus class at the local community college and inviting the prof over for dinner.  My mom was much more into the humanities, a voracious reader, and a devotee of public television.   Most of my high school classmates thought I would become an artist.  All that black eyeliner and armloads of bangles probably had something to do with that impression.  I started out pre-med undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in fall 1991.  Sometime in my first year, I took an art history class as a breadth requirement, and it was so comfortable and effortless…not work at all, like the math and chemistry courses I was struggling through.  And I would see the other students come to the lectures with their art class sketchpads and feel a pang of jealousy.  I made a calculation…that I could struggle my way into a career as a surgeon, and generally enjoy only my time in the operating theater while dealing with hours of unpleasant issues every day, or I could follow some nebulous art path and have no idea what career I might end up in, but it would come as easily to me as breathing.  Or so I imagined.  For a while I thought medical illustration would be the perfect blending of my interests.  I have met three medical illustrators since…the guy who made a dollar an hour more than I did as head of a crew at “College Pro” housepainters one summer, a very bright woman who was for many years the registrar at the Alaska State Museum, and a woman who is currently in Illinois finishing her medical illustration degree (best of luck Julia, you are talented and brave.)   When I declared my major in art history, I was given a brochure by the department listing possible careers I might consider with the degree I was going to get.  One of them was “Art Conservation.”  I had to ask three professors (including my advisor) before I even found someone who could tell me what art conservation was.  Nick Cahill, professor of ancient art and Greek art in particular, was on staff at Sardis, and told me about the conservators on site there.  My uncle had a pal who knew Jay and Holly Krueger, and I cold called them one nervous evening from the phone in my parent’s basement.  They basically told me to get in touch with AIC.  So I did, and realized I had to get my butt in gear to deal with all the pre-requisites.  I started studying german and french, took organic chemistry (including one semester twice because I got a C the first time…) and hunted around for some pre-program experience.  I had met Tony Rajer, who was from my hometown.  He taught an introduction to conservation at the UW that I sat in on, and I would occasionally bump into him at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center.  When I tried to contact him about pre-program experience, I never heard back from him.  None of the museums in Madison had a conservator on staff at that time.  I knew the university had a book conservation lab, and the State Historical Society had a paper conservation lab.  The man who ran the book lab, Jim Dast, was skeptical of my experience when I spoke to him on the phone, and his tone with me was very formal and a little discouraging, but I think underneath it he suspected I was willing to work hard.    Finally he told me if I took his 8-week bookbinding class at a local bookstore and showed promise, he might give me some part time work in his lab.  It panned out, and I spent many hours doing technician work re-casing and re-binding books, for a little more than a year.  That was a really wonderful job…complicated enough to be interesting, repetitive enough to be relaxing, an endless pile of work, and NPR through my headphones.  Jim was also the kind of person that I looked up to and wanted to impress, so the times he was pleased with me are little nuggets of joy that I still pull out of my memory and polish from time to time.   I also did some work at a paper conservation lab, but wasn’t as well received there.  Now I think I realize why.  Taking on a volunteer or an intern is a heck of a lot of work, and unless the lab has a certain kind of project going or a special kind of organization, it can be really hard to make supervising someone actually worth your time.  I was willing to do anything, and work really hard, but I didn’t have any concrete skills to offer and I think I was more a burden than a help to them.  One of my professors, Nick Cahill, suggested I apply for a grant to go to Turkey and take a course called “Archaeological Conservation in the Field.”  It was being taught for several days in late June 1995 by J. Claire Dean and Glenn Wharton at a site called Kaman Kalehoyuk and was aimed at archaeologists.  (Incidentally, I missed meeting my future husband, Scott Carroll, at that site by three days.  We didn’t meet till 1998.)  I applied to all three conservation programs in the United States at that time: NYU, Buffalo, and Delaware.  Nick Cahill, Jim Dast, and Fred Fenster were my references.  Fred was my metalsmithing professor, and if I had not gone into conservation, I think I would have gone on to graduate studies in silversmithing.  It continues to frustrate me that I have not made the time to set up a silversmithing studio since.  It has been on my personal to-do list for years.  When I applied to conservation schools, I also asked if Claire Dean and Glenn Wharton might put in a good word for me, even though they had not supervised me, because I hardly knew any conservators at that time.  I was quite worried about getting accepted to grad school.  I had heard it was very common not to get in on your first try, and that most conservators spent at least a year working somewhere after undergrad to get sufficient pre-program experience.  I was really worried about the prospect that I might have to move to a strange city in order to gain more experience.  In the spring of 1996, I interviewed at all three programs.  My trip to Turkey the year before had been my first big trip out of the midwest and the first time on an airplane since I was a small child.  I found traveling and interviewing to be quite intimidating, but exhilarating at the same time.  I knew during my interview at Buffalo that they were just getting a feel for me, and didn’t think I had enough pre-program experience.  Delaware went better, and they put me on a wait list.  NYU sent me an acceptance letter that summer.  Chatting with other students in my incoming class, enough students turned down Delaware that I would have been accepted there.  NYU was the right place for me, though, because I was serious about the art history degree and liked to write.  I thought I would go into metals conservation, but the things about metalworking that I so enjoyed had nothing to do with metals conservation treatments.  I found myself drawn to ethnographic and archaeological objects, largely because of the connections to the natural sciences, but also for the visceral appeal of the artifacts.  The smell and look and feel of them.  The so-called “intangible” qualities.  And the form-follows-function combination of beauty and utility of so many of those objects.  That was my path into conservation school.  My path post-graduate is a different posting….


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