The GCI Research Facilities Tour

On Thursday September 23, 2016 around 12:00 pm a group of conservation enthusiasts started gathering near a table assigned to BT04b in the Rendezvouz Court of the Millennium Biltmore Hotel. After lunch we all ventured through San Diego Freeway’s traffic towards The GCI Lab Facilities & Getty Center Architectural Tour.

Once there, our IIC badges served as a direct pass to the Getty Center. As we skipped the line and headed directly to security check, I thought of all the times being a conservator translated into having exclusive access at the most incredible places and their ‘behind the scenes’.

The Getty Center is astonishing in many ways, but what struck me at first was the magnitude of the architectural complex. We all took the tram up the hilltop of the Santa Monica Mountains and met in the Arrival Plaza, where we were instructed to divide in two groups. Who knew that could become such a complex task when your mind wanders through curvilinear travertine shapes and natural gardens?

I ended up joining what appeared to be the smallest half of the group and followed the lovely Gary Mattison while he guided us through the facilities. I could see how all eyes shined whilst learning about The Getty Collection’s technical analysis equipment and hearing Catherine Patterson talk about tracing elemental and molecular information in objects of all sizes.

Although we wished we could stay, it was finally time to get to know the actual Getty Conservation Institute. We went behind Gary through a white and silver maze, from one lab to another, through corridors and elevators. We heard great stories. Beril Biçer-Simşir shared with us how problem solving is addressed in the conservation of lifted mosaics; Nikki Van Basten showed us the progress of her research project on outdoor metal sculptures; Alan Phenix talked about protecting outdoors bronze sculptures and interpreting the notes of contemporary artists who document their creative process.

Despite the fact that none of the conservators I met mentioned unknown topics, something seemed distinct and distant from my experience. The high ceilings, the immaculate equipment, the ironed labcoats had a contrasting effect with tiny details that – to me – jumped out due to their familiarity: HQ photographs of huipiles from Oaxaca and a Santo Domingo Altarpiece, the plaque of the auditorium that read ‘Palenque’. I felt close to and away from home at the same time.

The whole experience was, in one way or another, a surreal occurrence. While some overheard conversations served as displays of amazement and skepticism: “this can’t be for real”, “an utopia”, “the Disneyland for conservators”; others strained to make their colleagues feel better: “Just imagine taking that highway to work everyday”.

To be honest, I wouldn’t mind. On that tour I leaned how the very suis géneris way The Getty Conservation Institute was conceived enables it to work with such high quality standards in order to advance conservation practice through research, education, applied field work, and the dissemination of knowledge, allowing it to become the trusted source of information and education for the cultural conservation community that it is today. I went out the last door with a great feeling of admiration towards the highly qualified staff that works there and the institution’s initiative for sharing the knowledge generated within it.

Our time at the Getty Center ended with a walk through Richard Meier's architecture, a quick glimpse at the galleries, the obligated visit to the gift shop, and the “I’ll have to come back” feeling as we took the tram downhill and back to reality.

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Valeria [Val-air-ee-ya] is a 23 year-old art conservation student based in Mexico City. She’s a current undergraduate at the Conservation of Cultural Heritage program at The National School of Conservation, Restoration and Museum Studies "Manuel del Castillo Negrete" (ENCRyM) and has worked in several conservation projects that include materials as diverse as prehispanic ceramics, textiles, polychrome sculpture, wall paintings, easel paintings, and paper. Her desire to deepen in learning experiences motivated her to pursue an adventure abroad. She’s currently an intern at the Royal BC Museum’s Conservation labs in Victoria, Canada.