Art Conservation Major Offers Unique Interdisciplinary Experience

Winding tree formations, innately carved shrubs, and a large circular fountain decorate the garden of Versailles, blooming under the statue of its original gardener. Versailles stands as both a piece of history defined by its past and a contemporary garden where modern horticulture is practiced. Here, art conservation major Mikayla Raymond SC ’15 is working to preserve a balance between Versailles’ past and future, its role as a tourist destination and a school for thought. This preservation of historical spaces and materials of the past is where Scripps College’s art conservation major program finds its niche. 

The art conservation program offers a course of study—rare among undergraduate colleges—that caters to students who share a love for two fields that are not traditionally paired: art and chemistry. Since its inception in 2010, the art conservation program has produced 15 majors, including alumna and current students. 

Scripps professor and alumna Mary MacNaughton, who is the director of the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery, was a member of the team who helped bring art conservation to Scripps. Over her time teaching at Scripps, MacNaughton saw many students become interested in the field through visits to sites such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Getty Museum, and the Huntington Library. 

“I saw during some of those visits the light go on in some students eyes,” MacNaughton said. 

As students gained interest in the major, faculty members worked on an individual basis to piece together the courses that would best fit students’ goals. 

“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be better to know what graduate schools are looking for and to design a major that would combine the right combination of courses?'” MacNaughton said. 

Art conservation majors undergo an intensive course of study, including foundational classes in chemistry, art history, and studio art. Students must take two years of chemistry, including a year of organic chemistry, with a recommended year of advanced lab to give them experience in hands-on instrumentation. This is supplemented with upper-division art history and anthropology courses, two studio art courses, and one art conservation major course. 

“It requires a particular kind of student, who’s interested in many different areas and likes working across the disciplinary boundaries,” MacNaughton said. “Their enthusiasm is infectious.” 

Gretchen Allen SC ’14 came to Scripps as one of these students, torn between her passions for both art and science. When she heard about the newly established art conservation program, Allen saw the chance to incorporate the opposing fields. 

“I switched my application to early decision the next day, came to Scripps as an art conservation major, and never regretted that decision,” Allen said. “The art conservation program has really been the bedrock of my Scripps experience. Studying this subject has taught me to respect and appreciate art not only as objects of beauty but as important elements to the shared cultural history of billions of people.”

Hands-on experience is as a central part of the art conservation program. The Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery offers year-round paid internships, giving students the opportunity to undertake conservation projects for the Scripps collection. Projects have included the preservation of the Shakespeare reliefs in Balch Hall and the La Semeuse bronze medallions that appear at the four entrances to the Scripps campus. 

Katie Shulman SC ’15 and Kaela Nurmi SC ’15 are interning with LA conservator Donna Williams to preserve the eight Shakespeare play character reliefs lining the lower floor of Balch Hall. They are working on the second relief, following the completion of the first last year. 

“We’ve been testing out different solvents and seeing how best to go about the project,” Shulman said. “It’s really interactive, and [Williams] lets us do a lot of hands-on work that you wouldn’t usually be able to.” 

“Internships at Scripps give you a leg up,” she added. “It’s a small field, and you have to be really good at your craft.” 

In addition to on-campus experiences, majors also head off campus to supplement their art conservation study. Students have frequently partnered with programs such as independent study through the Huntington Gallery and the Autry Museum of Western Heritage. In addition, the Studio Art Center International (SACI) program in Florence, Italy, is renowned for its classes in painting conservation with a specialization in fresco work. Shulman spent the fall semester with three fellow Scripps students at SACI, where she gained experience working with 16th-century paintings, mural and wall paintings, and archaeological objects. 

In graduate school, students can develop a focus and specialize in a specific area of art conservation, such as art curation, research, policy, and historic preservation. Although art conservation is still gaining recognition, the relatively young field provides a unique space for individuals to blend elements of past and present culture and develop their own area of expertise. 

Raymond, who is currently studying abroad in Paris, has an internship with Versailles working to examine the history of the garden. She is conducting research on the ways the view of the garden has changed over time, finding links between Versailles’ history and its current role as both an enterprise and tourist site. 

Although Raymond’s project may not be considered traditional art conservation, the major instills knowledge that enables students to conceive of art preservation in unique ways. 

“[Art conservation is] about adapting history to the future, and understanding how it functions,” Raymond said. “A painting may not be seen the same way as it was in 1700. You have to see and understand how the times and viewer change the [art] you’re looking at.”

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