Paul Messier, the Pritzker Director of Yale University’s Lens Media Lab, has straightforward advice for young people considering a career in the conservation of cultural heritage: Embrace innovation.
“This field is a platform for creativity,” Messier said, standing in his lab at the Institute for the Preservation of Culture and Heritage (IPCH) at Yale’s West Campus. “You can approach it from the perspective of science or humanities, but if you’re not a problem solver or an innovator, you’re not going to enjoy it or take advantage of what it has to offer. It’s all about innovation.”
Messier was speaking with a group of undergraduates and their mentors from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) who came to Yale for a weeklong program to learn about career opportunities in the cultural heritage sector, focusing on preservation and conservation.
The program, a partnership between Yale and the Alliance of HBCU Museums and Galleries, is aimed at increasing diversity in the predominantly white profession. African Americans represent about 1.5% of cultural-heritage professionals, while whites account for 85%, according to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
“The lack of diversity in our profession is glaringly obvious.”
— Ian McClure, conservator at the Yale University Art Gallery
“The lack of diversity in our profession is glaringly obvious,” said Ian McClure, the Susan Morse Hilles Chief Conservator at the Yale University Art Gallery, who led the program at Yale. “This program is intended to support initiatives underway at Yale and other institutions to open up career paths for students underrepresented in the field of cultural heritage. We hope to provide them with insight into the field and prepare them to take best advantage of internships and workshops available to them.”
The program, funded by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, also aims to guide the students’ mentors — all faculty and curators from HBCUs — on using their institutions’ museum collections to support teaching and learning. To develop the program, McClure and Messier worked with Caryl McFarlane, a co-founder of the Alliance of HBCU Museums and Galleries, and toured a number of HBCUs to see firsthand the significance of the cultural collections they house.
“Visiting with faculty and curators from Fisk, Spelman, Tuskegee, and other universities, we saw wonderful collections and archives that are important not just to these institutions but as major contributors to the nation’s cultural heritage,” said McClure. “They are already a great resource, but we want our partnership to elevate them to an even greater role in teaching and learning.”
Momentum across the network of HBCUs culminated in the week-long program at Yale, with participants also arriving from the University of Arkansas, North Carolina Central, Tougaloo College, Central Texas College, Texas Southern, Howard University, and Virginia Commonwealth.
Over the week, the 11 students and their mentors attended workshops and presentations by curators and conservators at several cultural institutions on campus, including the Yale Art Gallery, Yale Center for British Art (YCBA), Peabody Museum of Natural History, and the Yale University Library. They had time to get acquainted with Yale’s major collections, such as its extensive photography collections, and visited the Center for Engineering Innovation and Design.
Over the program’s first few days, the group spent time at IPCH’s conservation and research labs learning about the techniques and tools the conservators utilize and the problem solving skills the field requires.
In his talk, Messier explained the role of photography in conservation work.
“Photography has become an analytical tool to help us understand the materials that we’re working with,” he said.
He described a device he invented with his brother — an electrical engineer — to capture high-resolution digital images of an object’s surface at a microscopic level.
The high-resolution images allow conservators to pinpoint areas on a painting or other art object that require restoration. He showed the group a magnified image of corrosion on a penny, eliciting a chorus of “Wow!”
“This is a technique to not only document what we’re doing as conservators, but to really understand what we’re doing,” he said. “We’re moving beyond restoration and getting more and more into understanding the materials and making as minimal contact with those materials as possible.”
A tiny beam of light
Paul Whitmore, director of IPCH’s Aging Diagnostics Lab, provided another example of innovation in pursuit of cultural preservation. He demonstrated a non-invasive technology he developed to test the light sensitivity of works of art.
“I made this machine so I could identify the unstable colors on any work of art,” he said. “I can do it quickly and without leaving any kind of mark behind. That’s what this machine does, and it’s the only machine on the planet that does that job. It does it better than you can imagine.”
His machine shines a tiny beam of intense light — about 50 times brighter than sunshine — onto the object. Every minute under the beam delivers about one-year of museum gallery light, Whitmore said.
The process, called micro fading, allows him to measure the stability of colors without damaging the object. If a color is unstable, the slight color shift occurring during light exposure can be detected at a level that is imperceptible to the eye.
Using this technology, Whitmore can advise Yale’s museums and libraries on whether a painting, print, or photograph is safe to exhibit.
He used the process to determine that a collotype print of butterflies made by French artist E.A. Séguy in the 1920s was at risk in a display at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library because a red pigment was unstable and would quickly fade to pink, Whitmore said.
“You can put it on the wall, but you’d better rush over and turn off the room lights because that red color in the butterfly’s wing is amazingly unstable,” he said. The library’s curators simply arranged to display a number of similar Séguy prints in turn, so a single print would not bear the full burden of light exposure.
Conversely, he determined that it would be safe to display a Polaroid photo by photographer Walker Evans in an exhibit at the Yale Art Gallery.
Whitmore also described his efforts to understand why photographs by William Henry Fox Talbot, a 19th-century photographic pioneer, had faded.
The photos were included in a series of booklets called “The Pencil of Nature” that Talbot published to draw attention to the new medium of photography. They are the first commercially published books illustrated with photographs.
Whitmore pointed to a badly faded photo of a street scene.
“This used to be a dark photographic image, and it has changed to become this ghostly image,” he said. “The YCBA was interested in using this for an exhibition. They wanted to know whether displaying it would increase the damage.”
Micro fading showed that the fading was not due to light exposure. In fact, Whitmore discovered that light darkened the images.
“What in the world is going on?” he said. “That’s what we’re still trying to figure out.”
He described an experiment he is conducting to learn whether chemicals in the booklets’ inks or paper made the photographs fade. First, he made a photograph using the same materials and process that Talbot employed. Then he inserted the test photograph into an old book, putting a mask over the image so just a small portion of it is exposed to the paper.
If he finds that his simulated Talbot photograph fades, then it will suggest that the photographs in the booklets might continue to fade and require some sort of protection.
‘Like turning a mirror around’
Michael Marie Thomas, an undergraduate at Texas Southern University, called Whitmore’s micro-fading tool “beyond impressive.”
"It’s forensic science in the art world,” she said.
Thomas, a history major, said she was enjoying the opportunity to interact with the conservators and engage in discussion with them.
“They respect our opinion and they like to hear our thought process,” she said. “Sometimes it may be a situation where they say, ‘I didn’t think of it that way.’ It’s like turning a mirror around to see a room in different angles. We’re learning something from them, but they’re learning something from us as well.”
"It’s forensic science in the art world.”
— Michael Marie Thomas, student at Texas Southern University
Taryn Nurse, an undergraduate at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., has appreciated the cross-disciplinary nature of cultural conservation.
“I wasn’t aware of the many avenues where art and science coexist, so it was really exciting to come here and learn about conservation where art and science support each other in a really beautiful way,” said Nurse, a biology and art major who plans to become a medical artist and would like to work in a natural history museum.
“It’s so inspiring here,” she said.
Thomas expressed a hope that the program will continue to develop and become an annual event.
“There is a wealth of intellect and intelligence at HBCUs that hasn’t been tapped into,” she said. “We’re a resource that Yale needs. The students need that opportunity because if you give us a chance, we will show you our excellence.”
Opportunities to soar
Shannon Brogdon-Grantham, a photograph and paper conservator at the Smithsonian Institution and an HBCU alum, participated in the program’s first two days.
Brogdon-Grantham said the program is important because it provides students exposure to a field they may never have considered as a career possibility while offering a unique opportunity to network with established professionals in cultural heritage preservation.
“Even if they decide not to go into conservation science, they’ll always have this awareness of the skills involved in it, and they can reflect on this time after having gone into their respective careers,” she said. “Having these opportunities is invaluable to an undergraduates experience, and I’m grateful to be a part of it.”
Brogdon-Grantham, a graduate of Spelman College, said she had a “transformative experience” while attending a similar summer program at the University of Delaware as an undergraduate.
“I left that program knowing that I wanted to pursue a career in conservation, particularly photograph conservation,” she said.
Jontyle Robinson, curator of the Legacy Museum at Tuskegee University in Alabama and founder of the Alliance for HBCU Museums and Galleries, traces the relationship between Yale and the HBUCs to 1901 when Yale conferred an honorary degree on Booker T. Washington, the renowned educator and first president of Tuskegee University.
Robinson said she was excited by the energy of the students and the synergy between the conservators and the mentors, calling the experience “a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
While the program is meant to open doors to the field, the students were gaining invaluable experiences whether or not they go on to pursue a career in the preservation of cultural heritage, Robinson said.
“It’s not possible that all of the students will go on to become art conservators — that’s not what this is about,” she said. “Some of them will, but this process will create opportunities for all of the students to soar.”