Supporting the next, more diverse conservation community: The Andrew W. Mellon Opportunity for Diversity in Conservation

User menu

A group of participants trying their hand for the first time at inpainting, supervised by conservator Suzanne Morris. Photo by Ellen Pearlstein.

By Ellen Pearlstein and Bianca Martinez Garcia

The pilot program of The Andrew W. Mellon Opportunity for Diversity in Conservation, completing its third year in 2019, confirms that underrepresentation in conservation is the result of both a lack of familiarity with the field among many whose skills and interests could qualify them and the lengthy and expensive process of earning a place in graduate programs.

At outreach events held to promote this opportunity (these events were held over two years in twelve colleges and universities in the Western United States which were selected for their underrepresented enrollments) a show of hands found the majority of students to be unfamiliar with the conservation of cultural heritage. What outreach attendees consistently remarked on was that they now grasped the field of conservation but were shocked to discover the extent of diversity underrepresentation in this field.

Our pilot program has just celebrated completion of its second summer workshop, consisting of a 6-day conservation boot camp held on July 7-13, for 18 undergraduates and recent post-baccalaureate participants who were selected from 70 applicants. The selection process is carried out by a 10-member advisory board consisting of conservators, allied professionals, and faculty diversity experts. Beyond having a serious interest in the field of conservation, successful candidates must demonstrate a strong academic background and passion for cultural heritage. No previous conservation experience is required. The workshop is not meant to serve as pre-program experience, nor is it meant for already pre-program students, but rather it is meant to be an introduction for those potentially interested in the field. To remove any financial obstacles that might restrict participation, all of our workshop attendees received support in the form of airfare, housing, meals, and parking while in Los Angeles. Bus transportation was provided during the workshop. Participants stayed in dormitories at UCLA and took all meals together, building camaraderie.

In this workshop, each participant brought an item of personal significance. They complemented their own close cultural understanding by becoming familiar with materials and condition and learning the technical vocabulary and reporting systems used by conservators to fully document what they “see.” Participants were introduced to resources for researching historical and technical information about materials, structure, and function. Everyone explored and shared the significance of their materials, so we all learned a lot about Cahuilla and Navajo basketry, Filipino leather wedding shoes and change purses, Chinese ceramic fortune cats, Japanese textile Temari balls, Guyanese metal bangles, an early harmonica, and family photographs, documents, and souvenirs. Such sharing brought all participants together into a tight-knit group.

The week continued with demonstrations of documentation techniques, including digital photography, UV photography, stereo binocular and polarized light microscopy, X-Ray Fluorescence spectroscopy, and X-radiography—all techniques conservators and conservation scientists use to further understand the composition, techniques, and conditions of cultural materials. However, knowing that conservation is not just about techniques, theoretical discussion continued throughout the week as well on topics such as ethics, preservation, object safety, and treatment decision making. We welcomed a diverse group of conservation instructors from multiple specialties, each of whom described their own career pathway and who serve as role models and mentors. Workshop participants met with a series of speakers who work with conservators on a daily basis: curators, registrars, collections managers, and exhibit designers. A walkthrough of the Getty Research Institute Bauhaus Beginnings exhibition with exhibit designers, the curator, and conservators demonstrated the close collaborations surrounding planning and design decisions; how scientific research undertaken by conservators can be integral to the curator’s understanding and interpretation of an object; how conservators work with registrars in preparation for loans and travelling exhibitions; and how conservation work with collection managers, exhibition designers, and mount makers assures the safety of the collections in storage and display. Included in our week was a discussion about the importance of community in conservation decisions, underlined by a meeting with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) coordinator at the Autry Museum.

Another important focus throughout the week was the opportunity for participants to carry out hands-on conservation exercises. A series of mock-ups was designed for students to gain experience in pottery mending and fills, varnish removal, inpainting on painted surfaces, tear repair on paper, tarnish removal from silver, stitched repairs on textiles, and creating archival enclosures. The participants toured the conservation laboratories of the J. Paul Getty Museum where many specialties are represented, the objects and textiles labs at the Fowler Museum at UCLA, and state-of-the-art storage and conservation facilities at the Resources Center of the Autry. Workshop participants experienced many “aha” moments as they participated in the extraordinary variety of activities that constitute conservation work.

We invited the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellows and their program director to join us for lunch at the J. Paul Getty Museum, a meeting that allowed our students to compare their own pathways with these colleagues through animated discussion. We further informed our participants about graduate education in conservation, explaining the options in North America and resources available through the American Institute for Conservation and the Emerging Conservation Professionals Network.

Our week ended with a celebration and meet-and-greet attended by area conservators in the courtyard of the Fowler Museum, enjoying delicious Lebanese food. On our final day, each student presented their research findings about their significant items, incorporating all the knowledge and experience gained throughout the workshop, and reflecting upon how their own goals for their project had changed during the course of the week.

All of the workshop participants are eligible to apply for the second portion of the program which consists of a 400-hour internship, either full-time for 10 weeks, or part-time for a more extended period. Selected applicants must demonstrate serious commitment to pursuing graduate studies in art conservation and to completing the needed pre-requisites. Internship awardees are matched to a conservation facility where the specialty, commitment to mentoring, and location are a good fit. By awarding airfare, significant stipends, and a housing allowance to support internship awardees, the proposed program alleviates a major source of financial stress and levels the playing field for participants interested in a career in conservation.

Of the 2018 workshop participants, 6 were awarded internships that were completed this year. Chosen internship specialties included objects, textiles, paintings, archaeological materials, and Japanese paintings at institutions such as the Autry Museum of the American West, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Lunder Conservation Center at Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Gallery of Art, the National Museum of the American Indian, and the Textile Museum at George Washington University. In October of this year, we will celebrate the 6 internship awardees. Funding has been set aside to support travel costs for internship supervisors and family members in this post-internship celebration, designed also to convince awardees and their families that this unfamiliar field is a valuable career option. We look forward to hearing what these emerging conservators present about their internships and to celebrating with them as they plan their next steps toward graduate school.

The authors have many people to thank for making this rewarding program possible. First is the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, whose generous funding allows us to implement activities in support of a more diverse conservation community. Next is the Getty Conservation Institute, whose facilitation allows our workshop to take place in the UCLA/Getty Program Labs. The Fowler Museum at UCLA donates the beautiful spaces we use for receptions, and our colleagues at the UCLA Library Conservation Center; the J. Paul Getty Museum; the Getty Villa; the Getty Research Institute; the Autry Museum; the Huntington Library, Museum and Gardens; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and the Museum Conservation Institute, Smithsonian Institution all generously donate their time.

Finally, we’d like to thank the members of our Advisory Board—who assist us with their evaluations of programming, applications, and with mentoring of participants—and the staff at the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology and the UCLA College of Letters and Sciences Development for their extraordinary assistance with grant management.


Ellen Pearlstein is a professor in UCLA’s Department of Information Studies, and the UCLA Cultural Materials Conservation Program and UCLA/Getty Program in Conservation of Archaeological and Ethnographic. She in the principal investigator for the Andrew W. Mellon Opportunity for Diversity in Conservation. Ellen was the senior objects conservator at the Brooklyn Museum in New York beforehand.

Bianca Garcia is the program manager for the Andrew W. Mellon Opportunity for Diversity in Conservation initiative, and is an assistant conservator of paintings at the Balboa Art Conservation Center in San Diego, CA. Bianca earned her M.S. in art conservation from the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation and her B.A. in art conservation from the University of Delaware.

(For more images and information, see the full article in "News in Conservation" Issue 74, October 2019 here:

Home Page Intro: 
The pilot program of The Andrew W. Mellon Opportunity for Diversity in Conservation, completing its third year in 2019, confirms that underrepresentation in conservation is the result of both a lack of familiarity with the field among many whose skills and interests could qualify them and the lengthy and expensive process of earning a place in graduate programs.
Home Page Suppress Text: