Art Conservation: Pushing the Boundaries of a Liberal Arts Education

By Nancy Herrera '15, Design Editor

Do Scripps students have what it takes to preserve their founder’s history? With the training received in art conservation, the answer is a resounding “Yes!”

Art conservation, one of Scripps’ newest majors, focuses on the science of preserving society’s cultural heritage, which can include anything from French gardens and statues to Ellen Browning Scripps’ handwritten letters. Doing this preservation requires a truly interdisciplinary approach, since it involves art, art history, anthropology, material science and chemistry.

Students in Professor Eric Doehne’s Global Tourism and Preservation Technology class have dedicated themselves to digitizing Ellen Browning Scripps’ travel letters. She wrote more than 100 letters as she toured the world, including places like the Egyptian monuments. Meticulously scanning one page at a time, students take care to modify the scanner’s settings for each one, as the writing is faint. Preserving Ellen Browning Scripps’ travel letters means preserving a means to better understand how she developed her passions for art preservation, archeology and women’s education. The letters also elucidate tourism in the 1880s. The result of the project will be on exhibit next fall in Denison Library.

Doehne said of the students in his class, “Some of them are [first years], who want to try something interdisciplinary, and some are seniors that want to take a more art-related course after taking their tough chemistry courses.”

Scripps is a natural fit for the major, since, in Doehe’s words, “Scripps students don’t want to speak just one academic language.” Through courses like those of Core, Scripps students have developed a skill at integrating knowledge from different fields. Said Doehne, “I really enjoy the students. They are very diverse, interesting people.” Professor Anna Wenzel, who teaches organic chemistry, said that “students who major in art conservation want to have a good balance between a liberal arts and a scientific background.”

The art conservation major was created two years ago after Mary McNaughton (’70), director of Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery and professor of art history, responded to student requests to create a major that would help students enter competitive programs in the field. This year, the first class of art conservation majors is graduating. They are doing diverse set of activities after graduation, including working at the National Gallery in London,

studying at UC Berkeley and interning at an archaeological site in Central Anatolia. Robin Dubin (‘12), who is majoring in art conservation, said, “I love how hands-on and practical it is... It’s so satisfying and fulfilling to get to work with objects directly to preserve cultural heritage for the future.” For her thesis, Dubin is doing a conservation project on a Greek black-figure vase in the Scripps collections. The vase will be used as case study in examining the issue of antiquities in museum collections. Said Dubin, “Majoring in art conservation is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I’m excited to be one of the first Scrippsies to graduate

with this major! I really hope the program will keep growing after I’m done.” Since the major is still new, most of the courses are a blend of curriculum designed for other majors. However, the department has plans to add a course specific to the major, called “Material Science: History of Technology.” The material science course would be an important addition to the art conservation offerings because it would enable students to learn

how substances behave and respond to the environment. Since the topics around art conservation have broad appeal among Scripps students,

professors are planning on creating multiple minors within the program, hoping to cater to different facets of the field. These minors will effectively act as different tracks within the major. For example, one might focus on chemistry and material science, while another might focus more on art history. One of the proposed minors is “heritage science,” which deals with trying to preserve cultures through the use of tourism. A meeting to discuss plans for the minors and potential major tracks is planned to convene on Dec. 12.

To Doehne, students who major in art conservation can serve as “bridges” between different departments in academia. In galleries, they can serve to translate important scientific concepts in art to more traditional art and art history majors. They can also serve to make science more exciting to the general public. Said Doehne, “When people hear of art like the Mona Lisa and the Dead Sea scrolls, they get excited. It can be the same way for science.”

For scientists like Wenzel, art conservation is a way to give an outlet to her creative side. “I have learned a lot about art, which is a passion of mine. As a scientist, it is engaging when science is being applied,” said Wenzel. “The art conservation major is the ideal manifestation of what is amazing in a liberal arts education.”