International Activities in the Preservation Studies Doctoral Program at the University of Delaware

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Reyhane with a Senne gelim weaver in Naysar, Sanandaj, Iranian Kurdistan, taken by Saadat Aslani in January 2019; photo credit to Reyhane Mirabootalebi and the UD PSP.

By Joyce Hill Stoner

The two most recent graduates of the University of Delaware’s Preservation Studies Doctoral Program (PSP) hailed from Portugal and Uruguay, and other current students are from Iran and China, working alongside students from the US. Recent topics have ranged from the preservation of fossil bones to the change of paint media from egg to oil in the Quattrocento or from examining the significance of historic architecture and intangible cultural heritage of the Bapai Yao in China to identifying the authorship of ancient Greek ceramics through technology.

Dr. Maria João Petisca, from Portugal, and Dr. Mariana Di Giacomo, from Uruguay, both successfully defended their dissertations in 2019. João examined and analyzed lacquerware furniture manufactured in Canton, studying history, trade routes, materials, and techniques. Mariana studied methods of fossil preparation and the need to change the hiring and training practices for professional preparators as vital decision-makers at the core of a successful paleontology community.

João Petisca completed her BA in conservation and restoration at the Instituto Politécnico de Tomar in 1997 and her degree (or licenciatura) in conservation and restoration, also from the Instituto, in 2001. In 2009 she finished her MA in decorative art at the Portuguese Catholic University; her thesis was on export Chinese lacquer screens from the 18th and 19th centuries. She participated in the Urushi 2009-International Course on Conservation of Japanese Lacquer, held in Japan and co-organized by ICCROM and the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, and held two different fellowships in Lisbon on lacquer and cultural heritage and next treated Chinese lacquer panels from the Elms mansion, Newport, Rhode Island (USA). João has been working with Chinese export lacquer for over 15 years and says that her curiosity about it has never stopped growing. She continues to want to know more about the objects, how they were made, and their circulation between China and other countries. As a conservator, she realized that Chinese export lacquer tends to be somewhat neglected and overlooked when defining conservation priorities. From her professional work experience, she believes that the less the public knows about art objects, the less they will care for them, and writes “Studying them, and most importantly sharing that knowledge and calling attention to the pieces, is key for preservation efforts.”

At the University of Delaware, João combined documentary research and analytical methods in order to understand Chinese black and gold lacquer production from the Guangzhou region, made for the export market between 1700 and 1850. She presented a poster entitled "Lacquered Furniture in an Americana Collection" at the 2014 IIC Congress in Hong Kong. With the support of the Phillips Library/Peabody Essex Museum, João was a Frances E. Malamy Fellow between August and October 2016 and had access to the extensive manuscript collection in Salem, Massachusetts (USA). Shipping records were the most important part of her research since these included precious information about merchants, trade, and cargo that circulated between Salem and Guangzhou beginning in 1786 when the ship Grand Turk made the first round trip between the two port cities. Grants allowed her to visit the Royal Brighton Pavilion to look at a specific dressing table, one of the rarest forms of Chinese export lacquered furniture, and to study objects in other collections and carry out library research. She visited China and spent a month between Guangzhou, Macao, and Hong Kong.

João will next be working as a furniture and lacquer conservator both for private clients as well as for different Portuguese cultural institutions.

Mariana Di Giacomo earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in paleontology in Uruguay, trained in fossil preparation, and became the manager of a collection. She entered the Delaware doctoral program in 2014 and carried out two fellowships at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. One of her projects involved surveying more than 300,000 microscope slides of specimens from all departments in the museum—ranging from plants to reptiles—to identify which types of mounting materials formerly used to preserve the specimens are stable and which are deteriorating.

Mariana’s dissertation studied the physical consequences of mechanical, acid, and laser methods of fossil preparation by using SEM, XRD, XRF, and ToF-SIMS to examine treated samples. She emphasized the importance of avoiding the use of cleaning methods that might hinder future analytical methods. For example, certain cleaning methods are known to interfere with DNA research.

Mariana noted that in 2011, a document called “Defining the Professional Vertebrate Fossil Preparator: Essential Competencies” was created by experienced professionals with hope of changing how fossil preparators are characterized. Her dissertation emphasizes the importance of collaboration between researchers during examination of fossil samples to bridge the gap between fossil preparation and the science of paleontology, as the preparator’s perspective and understanding of the fossil may change the interpretations made by the paleontologist. She also notes that “Knowledge of conservation principles and collaborations with conservators can provide not only better materials used in mounting or as adhesives and consolidants, but the partnerships formed can also help ensure better monitoring of collections, and more effective measures for mitigation of issues and prevention of emergencies.”

Dr. Mariana Di Giacomo was hired in the fall of 2019 as the new natural history conservator at Yale University’s Peabody Museum and was quoted in a December 2, 2019 Yale News story regarding the stability of The Age of Reptiles, Rudolph F. Zallinger’s iconic mural depicting dinosaur and other reptile species which lived over a span of 362 million years, in advance of the Museum’s upcoming renovation.

Reyhane Mirabootalebi was born in Tehran, Iran and earned her MA degree in cultural materials conservation from the University of Melbourne in 2011; she is a dual citizen of Iran and Australia. She has been working as an objects and textiles conservator since 2010 in cultural institutions including the Conservation Consultancy Services for the University of Melbourne, the National Museum of Australia, the Heritage Conservation Center in Singapore, and the National Museum of Kabul. Reyhane was a consulting conservator in the Partnership Project, administered by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago at the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul.  There she worked on the archaeological and indigenous collections of the National Museum, which had been severely affected by looting and destruction due to intensive conflicts in the country over the last four decades. The main focus of her work at the National Museum was on the training of the Afghan conservators in all aspects of care, conservation treatment, and preservation of the collections. She is currently studying women's art during war-torn situations. Her focus on northern Iran and Iraq is also in line with the University of Delaware's ongoing ten-year cooperation with the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage (IICAH).

Reyhane’s dissertation topic is Traditional Kurdish Textiles: Cultural Interweaving and Unraveling. She is investigating changes in creation, production, design, material choice, and function. Factors such as loss of human lives, relocation, destruction of or limited access to habitats, and economic instability are being considered in the context of potential maintenance, redevelopment, or regeneration of traditional practices. For centuries, the Kurdish people made and enjoyed objects that helped support their nomadic tribal lifestyle. The most beautiful of these are the colorful textiles woven by Kurdish women from the wool of domestic animals such as goats and sheep that their families tended as they roamed through what are now the modern states of Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Today, however, the weaving of Kurdish tribal textiles is considered a dying art. Reyhane has traveled to the Kurdish regions of Iraq and Iran to interview, photograph, and videotape members of the community who are still weaving textiles in the traditional manner.

Two current UD doctoral students are from China: Ying Xu and Aidi Bao. Ying Xu is studying Bapai Yao, a minority region in South China, and the complex role government-led market-based preservation plays in contemporary Chinese society as a strategy for preserving cultural heritage and stimulating economic development in an ethnic minority region.

Aidi Bao is carrying out technical and historical studies on the Guqin (a wooden stringed musical instrument coated with lacquer-based finishes) and the important role the craquelure plays in the timbre of the instrument.

The research carried out by our international students has broadened the learning experience of our undergraduate and master’s-level art conservation students, and all have enjoyed learning about each other’s cultures. We had a Thanksgiving dinner in Delaware where each brought one of her national dishes.

For more information about the University of Delaware Preservation Studies Doctoral Program, visit: or contact Dr. Joyce Hill Stoner at:


Joyce Hill Stoner, PhD, studied conservation and art history at the NYU IFA, has taught paintings conservation for the Winterthur/UD Program in Art Conservation for 43 years, and founded and directs the UD doctoral program in preservation studies.

(the full article including more images can be found in the February-March 2020 "News in Conservation" Issue 76, p. 10)

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The two most recent graduates of the University of Delaware’s Preservation Studies Doctoral Program (PSP) hailed from Portugal and Uruguay, and other current students are from Iran and China, working alongside students from the US... The research carried out by our international students has broadened the learning experience of our undergraduate and master’s-level art conservation students, and all have enjoyed learning about each other’s cultures.
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