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William Donnelly, affiliated assistant professor of art
conservation, turned his kitchen into a teaching space during the spring
semester of 2020. Here, he facilitates an exercise where students,
tuned in via Zoom, talk him through the recovery of wet artifacts from
large, plastic tubs of water.
field of art conservation, much work involves assessing the condition of
material objects textiles, paintings, sculptures, photographs. This
goes for artifacts that have been well preserved as well as those
battered by a storm, literal or otherwise. When compiling a condition
report, a conservator must come up with a treatment plan, a proposal for
stabilizing said objects so they can survive long term.
Last spring, when the coronavirus (COVID-19) threw the country into upheaval, art conservation
professors at the University of Delaware used their skills to formally
assess the condition not of artifacts, but of their students. What is
the treatment plan for graduates and undergraduates caught up in the
coronavirus storm? Their education had thus far relied heavily on
hands-on, laboratory learning, and now their classes would transition to
an online format. Stabilizing objects is one thing but, in these
conditions, how do you stabilize people for long-term survival in their
For answers, UDs experts looked no further than their own
training as conservators. When it comes to preserving art, a stain or a
crack or other imperfection is not necessarily a blemish to be scrubbed
out or repaired. Instead, it can be an important part of the cultural
heritage, a key to the story that ends up enriching the whole piece.
Teaching during a pandemic? For some educators and their students, that
is the crack in the vase or the smudge in the painting.
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
Laura Mina reengineered her hands-on
classes for a virtual format. Here, for a Zoom audience, she
demonstrates a crease-reduction technique using a simple arm mount
on the side of her desk that holds the cell phone for
This has been a really good growing, boundary-pushing exercise,
said Joelle D. J. Wickens, associate director of The
Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation.
Sometimes, it takes something totally drastic to push you out of your
comfort zone. Youve been doing things the same way because that is
whats easy, and you just keep going. Then some big thing like a
pandemic gets in the way, and you have to reevaluate. Often, I think, we
come to a better place because of it.
Take Nina Owczarek, assistant professor of art conservation. When
the pandemic struck, her students were in the midst of documenting and
treating the damage of objects from Native American artifacts to
Peruvian fly whisks on loan from Bryn Mawr College. These items could
not be taken off campus so, when the students were sent home, Owczarek
In a second-hand store in her hometown of Wilmington, she said she
scoured for baskets items that can be worked on outside a lab setting
because the materials required for basketry conservation do not involve
toxic chemicals. She then smushed these baskets, punctured holes in
their sides and inflicted other damage for the students to cope with.
Finally, she assembled take-home treatment kits that included paints,
cosmetic sponges and other materials.
Even though it wasnt what we had necessarily hoped for, I
definitely still learned a great deal about different hand skills, said
Miriam-Helene Rudd, a senior assigned to one of the baskets. Im very
grateful for how the art conservation faculty is adapting to ensure we
still get the best experience possible. Everyone at UD has been so
willing to help each other in navigating this period.
When classes transitioned to an online format due to COVID-19,
Professor Laura Mina equipped
her students with take-home fabric kits complete with conservation tools
and materials. Pictured here are some of the kits fabric paints in use
at a students home.
For Laura Mina, associate conservator of textiles and head of the
Textile Lab at UD who teaches students in the graduate program, the key
has been remembering: While class delivery methods may change, the big
picture does not.
When I looked at my syllabus and thought: How can I make this
immersive textile class something my students can learn at home? that
was really frustrating, she said. But when I went back to my list of
priorities and the core competencies important for my students to learn,
it was still challenging, but a lot less frustrating. I could say, OK,
maybe I need to find another way of working toward these goals, but I
can still achieve them.
With the help of coworkers, paid interns and volunteers, Mina
compiled nine take-home kits four had materials for creating textiles
off campus using methods like crochet, needle felting and a traditional
Japanese embroidery technique known as Sashiko. Without access to the
giant loom in the textile lab, Mina equipped her students with more
portable devices that can be set up anywhere to enable tablet weaving on
a body-tension loom. The rest of the kits had tools for completing
various textile conservation techniques, like humidification and crease
reduction. The students were given feedback and instruction over Zoom.
One of the things were taught is that you always have to
document each step as if someone might have to come and take over from
you, said Miriam-Helene Rudd, a senior art conservation major, pictured
here cleaning a tapestry. Thats always been an abstract concept. But
the pandemic made it clear: At any point in time, you could be
interrupted, so its important to have that in the back of your mind and
leave detailed notes about the treatment youre working on.
In reality, very few conservators end up working in a pristine lab
setting with access to deionized water and other resources, said
Annabelle Camp, one of Minas graduate students. By figuring it out at
home, we were able to see what it is like working as a private
conservator out of a residence or historical site. In this situation, we
learned the importance of being resourceful.
Typically, these Blue Hens would
also have completed an exercise related to the care of museum objects
but, without access to a museum, they pivoted. Inspired by a hobby that
continues gaining traction during quarantine sorting through old stuff
the students undertook a public outreach project. For a series of
blogs entitled Attics and basements and closets, oh my, they researched and shared their advice on caring for family heirlooms, from old photographs to quilts and jewelry.
People often think art conservators are only treating museum
objects, but were not, Camp said. We also train people on how to care
for their own collections, because we truly believe that all objects,
not just those deemed worthy of being in a museum, can speak to history.
They can help us make invaluable connections across communities and
across the globe.
The real-world resonance of art conservation classes taught during
the pandemic is a common refrain among professors reflecting on their
COVID-19 classes. For one thing, the online format has allowed for
classroom discussions that go beyond the technical side of the field
conversations, for instance, on the ethical issues that conservators
will encounter once they enter the profession. One example, according to
Owczarek, is a dialogue she facilitated about documentation students
are traditionally trained to value it as a cornerstone of the field. But
what happens when, outside the classroom, they encounter an artifact
from a culture that views photography as harmful?
Graduate student Annabelle Camp works on an officer's coat from the Colonial Williamsburg collection. Her internship took place partly on
site in Williamsburg and partly remotely.
You build a coalition, Owczarek said. You start talking to people.
You do research to find out if there is a safe way to document that is
not harmful to the artifact or the people it comes from. Its not as
straightforward as you may think, and I am hoping my students come away
with this sensitivity.
Some pandemic-era pivots have been so successful, UD professors
say they will hold on to them, even if and when the coronavirus is no
longer an issue.
In one of Wickens classes, for example, she teaches emergency
preparedness and response in the event of a hurricane or flood,
students learn best practices for rescuing submerged objects. In one
exercise, the students are presented with large plastic tubs filled with
water and artifacts, like paintings and ceramics, in need of saving.
What I really want the students to do is assess the situation, to
really figure out which objects are most at risk and which can probably
sit in the water for a while without becoming more damaged than they
already are, Wickens said. But, in a traditional, in-person class, this
is challenging. As soon as a conservator sees something that is wet,
there is this need and desire to get it out of the water right away. It
is difficult to get them to take more than a minute or two to really
talk things through.
But during the pandemic, Wickens has conducted this exercise over
Zoom. Her co-teacher, affiliated assistant professor William Donnelly,
was in his kitchen with the tub of wet objects, while the students tuned
in from their respective kitchens and bedrooms. Donnelly pretended to
be someone without conservation expertise who needed help figuring out a
plan of action. And the students, connecting in this virtual manner,
took the time to flesh out this plan before having Donnelly dive in.
They had no choice but to talk to one another, Wickens said. Im
pretty sure even when were back on site, Im going to continue doing
the exercise in this way.
This isnt to say the restrictions of COVID-19 have been easy. The
professors attest long Zoom sessions can feel more formal and
disconnected than in-person instruction, which is why they choose to
humanize their courses by building in time for discussions that have
nothing to do with curriculum about, say, household pets who wander
across the screen.
We take our work very seriously, but its nice to allow for
those moments of joy or lightheartedness in the day, said Mina, the
owner of a particularly fluffy cat who is part Maine Coon. It helps you
feel more connected to one another, even when we cant physically be
And when things feel too tough even for a cute kitten or puppy to
rectify? The professors and students say their Blue Hen values of
resilience and adaptability see them through. As does dedication to the
mission that remains at the heart of all conservation work even, or
perhaps especially, during a pandemic.
Artifacts bring us together, Owczarek said. They show us who we
are as people. They help us feel connected to our history and our
present, and they can shape the direction we go in our future. Taking
care of them inspires us to be our best selves.
Photos by Evan Krape and courtesy of Annabelle Camp,
Miriam-Helene Rudd, Joelle D. J. Wickens and Laura Mina
Published Oct. 13, 2020