Tuesday Noon Academy: Introducing Art Conservation

The set of professional talks, also known as the Tuesday Noon Academy, began with a bang on Sept. 15. Judy Harvey Sahak kicked it off with a talk on the history of the Scripps woman—an apt beginning to a series of lectures aimed at introducing students, faculty and staff to topics they would not necessarily encounter in the classroom. Indeed, one of the most popular Tuesday Noon Academy “lectures” is Chef Dale’s selection of gourmet holiday delights (mark your calendars, students: Dec. 1).This year, though, some of the talks focus on a rare novelty on the Scripps campus: a new major. The Sept. 22 Tuesday Noon Academy talk by Suzanne Morris marked the first of what will hopefully be several lectures on Scripps’ new art conservation major. Morris discussed her experience at the UCLA/Getty Master’s Program on the conservation of ethnographic and archaeological materials, focusing on her third and final year there. Morris’ final year in the program was spent investigating and treating a sculpture of a famous biblical scene: Saint Michael the archangel, weighing the souls of the departed.

The art conservation major combines art history, science, anthropology and studio art to prepare students for internships at the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery, conservation courses in off-campus study programs and admission to highly competitive graduate programs in art conservation. For someone like me, who went through high school feeling like a jack of all trades, master at none, the art conservation major sounds like a great fit. My mid-high-school crisis went something like this: I knew I was capable of going to a career-oriented research university and majoring in something technical and scientific, but I was afraid I would get burned out and hate it. I thought art school sounded like a lot of fun, but in some ways I felt I was selling my left brain short and, okay—elephant in the room—I didn’t think it opened up many career options. And by opening career options, I mean making money. Art conservation is a welcome addition to the Scripps majors for the modern Renaissance woman, like me.

Morris’ talk was like an episode of MythBusters, combined with the suspense I secretly experience waiting for a makeover show’s big reveal. Most of the techniques used to uncover mysteries of the object were incredibly nerdy and I’m not ashamed to announce that I found them totally fascinating. Morris used her knowledge of art history to identify the statue as “Saint Michael Weighing Souls.” She used her skills in science to identify the type of wood it was carved from and to narrow its place of origin down to a small Italian city. Morris explained her use of X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) to determine that lead paint was used to cover the object. She examined the flaking gold leaf under a microscope and found it was actually made up of several layers, and that the object had undergone previous conservation treatments. She used her background in anthropology to determine that this statue was probably the combined effort of several different artists. She even discovered dead beetles in the wood, identified them, and found they had been responsible for much of the object’s deterioration. Through hours upon hours of work, Morris slowly unearthed Saint Michael’s journey from an anonymous, deteriorating old thing to a historically-significant object with a history. She also showed before and after photos of the statue’s head, with dramatic results.

Think a job doesn’t get any better than that? Think again. Morris is currently directing an archaeological dig of an Egyptian tomb. Awesome.

Many interdisciplinary art-science majors are either ridiculously difficult—think biology major and studio arts minor—or incredibly narrow—think medical textbook illustrator. But the requirements for art conservation are very doable, even for those who want to study abroad. If art conservation sounds interesting to you, get started with Chemistry 14L and 15L right away. For more information, or to discuss the major, contact Professors Coats, Hatcher-Skeers, Rankaitis or Associate Professors Koss and MacNaughton. The next art conservation talk will be by Donna Williams of Williams Art Conservation in Los Angeles, at 6:45 p.m. Oct. 27 (call 909-607-8508 for reservations).