Melissa preparing samples of textiles for her research on mold mitigation with essential oils (photo credit: Laura Mina)

When I was an undergraduate (class of 2010) in the History of Art Department, I learned about the field of art conservation and immediately knew it was the path for me. It combined my love of art history, studio art, and the sciences. As an undergraduate I gained my first experiences in conservation at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology thanks to an introduction from Dr. Christopher Ratté during an Anatolian Archaeology class. I had a long journey building experiences in conservation before finally being admitted into graduate school at the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (class of 2020). I am so grateful for both Dr. Ratté and Dr. Sears who assisted me by writing recommendations for this competitive graduate application process.

Once in graduate school you have to decide on a specialty. These specialties traditionally include: paintings, objects, paper, library & archives, furniture, photographs, and textiles. I ended up going a completely different path and became the first student to formally train in the US with a specialization in preventive conservation. Preventive conservation is certainly not a new concept for our field (in fact, it may be one of the oldest and most widely practiced). It encompasses the efforts to minimize the degradation of objects from all of the risks known as the “10 agents of deterioration” (light, pests/mold, temperature, humidity, physical forces, water, fire, pollutants, dissociation, thieves/vandals).

I have had graduate internships at the Brooklyn Museum, English Heritage, the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute, and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art. I am currently the Samuel H. Kress Fellow in Preventive Conservation at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History where I am completing a risk assessment to evaluate storage options for the large vertebrate specimens currently stored on open shelving. In the Fall of 2021 I will start as the Annette de La Renta Fellow in Preventive Conservation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Department of Scientific Research to examine pollutants in the galleries and vibration from musical events. I have also completed research into mold mitigation on textiles with the use of essential oils, ways to measure mercury vapor from degrading 19th century looking glass mirrors, and utilizing data science to evaluate temperature and relative humidity data for indoor spaces.

Art conservation is often described as the equivalent of being a doctor for art. Using that analogy, you might argue that those who specialize in treatment are more like surgeons, and I am more like a primary care doctor. Instead of prescribing exercise and diet, I might prescribe specific light levels or a protective showcase. I love that preventive conservation allows me to work with all material types and collaborate with so many different experts, from entomologists to HVAC engineers. What I especially love about preventive conservation, however, is that it promotes equity in the conservation of cultural heritage. Everyone has objects that they cherish and wish to preserve, and all of you are practicing preventive conservation whether or not you realize it.

Melissa preparing temperature/humidity sensors and moisture sorbents to put into a display case at English Heritage’s Ranger’s House in London (photo credit: Rebecca Bennett)