UCLA program for increasing diversity in conservation of cultural heritage earns new $900,000 grant

Thanks to the progress it has already made, a UCLA-led program created to increase diversity in the field of cultural heritage conservation has received a new $900,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The funds ensure the initiative will continue through at least 2025.

The program received pilot funding of $450,000 from the Mellon Foundation in 2016.

The first six postgraduate scholars to participate in the program gave presentations about their 10-week paid internships at an on-campus meeting in October. During the summer of 2019, each of them worked at a high profile institution: New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Autry Museum in Los Angeles; and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, National Gallery of Art, George Washington University Textile Museum and National Museum of the American Indian, all in Washington, D.C.

The aspiring conservators, college graduates from diverse backgrounds, worked on preservation, cleaning and documentation projects for paintings, sculptures, textiles and archeological materials. The experiences gave them practice developing the critical “hand skills” the profession requires, as well as insights into the scientific and ethical principles of conservation. Two of them have already landed their next fellowship or internship.

“All feedback about this program indicates that it is a huge success,” said Ellen Pearlstein, a UCLA professor of information studies and the program’s principal investigator. “For these students to get their next conservation opportunities is a huge step. And with this new funding, we can keep it going. It really feels like we are making an impact on the lack of diversity in conservation.”

An Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey published in January 2019 found that there has been some progress in hiring people of color in art museums. The survey showed incremental progress in the overall diversity of museum staff, with 35% of respondents from Hispanic, African American, Asian American or American Indian backgrounds, compared to 30% in a 2015 survey. But those improvements were largely in curatorial and museum education positions; conservation showed no change in diversity between the 2015 and 2019 reports — 87% of respondents were white in both.

Thanks to the Mellon Foundation funding, UCLA can and should serve as a Western hub for people from underrepresented ethnic, social and economic backgrounds who are interested in conservation careers, said Pearlstein, who also is a founding faculty member of the UCLA/Getty Program in the Conservation of Archaeological and Ethnographic Materials.

A similar program run by the Smithsonian Institution, called Conservation Internships for Broadening Access, has made great strides in working with historically black colleges and universities in the east and mid-Atlantic.

The UCLA program already has widespread support from museums locally and across the country. Fifteen candidates for the internship program attend a six-day summer workshop at the Getty Villa that includes theoretical discussions, practical exercises, and visits to museums and conservation labs in Los Angeles.

To spread the word about the workshop, Pearlstein and Bianca Garcia, the internship’s program manager, reach out to several universities — not only University of California and Cal State University campuses but also colleges in neighboring states with large populations of underrepresented students, including the Institute for Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, which is tuition free for all American Indian students.

After both the 2018 and 2019 workshops, Pearlstein said, several attendees expressed interest in conservation careers, while others were inspired to think about other career tracks in museums.

“We qualify that as a successful outcome too,” Pearlstein said.

Hiring interns to work at a museum is not a new tactic, said Marian Kaminitz, head of conservation at the National Museum of the American Indian.

“But being able to support this program is meaningful, as it is one of just two programs of its kind in the country,” she said. “We’d like to see more people of Native American descent involved in conservation.”

A more diverse network of professionals would bring valued cultural sensibilities to the profession — especially on issues of appropriation and repatriation. But the program is important for other reasons, said Glenn Wharton, who came from New York University in July serve as chair of the UCLA/Getty Program in the Conservation of Archaeological and Ethnographic Materials.

“I feel that it is unhealthy for the field to have such limited diversity,” he said. “Our field should have diverse perspectives when it comes to figuring out how to preserve the Mona Lisa.”

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