Volume 6, Number 2, 1997

Broken family picture leads to art conservation career

Renee Stein began making plans to attend the University of Delaware earlier than most. In her case, she knew she wanted to study art conservation when she was 8 years old.

When the current graduate fellow in the Winterthur/UD Program in Art Conservation was 7, she accidentally broke a wedding photograph of her grandparents that had been leaning, unprotected, against a bookcase. The old, delicate picture of her mother's parents broke into two large pieces.

Stein says her mother spent a year trying to find someone to repair the photograph. Most of the people she contacted simply wanted to press the two broken pieces together, shoot a new negative and print a new picture. But, Stein's mother wanted the original repaired, and she wanted it done well.

Eventually, they were directed to a conservator at the Winterthur Museum who was able to restore the family heirloom.

Following that process, Stein says she knew she wanted to work in art conservation, and she was well aware of UD's cooperative program with the Winterthur Museum.

While in high school, Stein found out the academic requirements and made sure she took the science, art and history courses necessary to pursue her career goal.

"I loved art and history," she says. "I thought it was a wonderful way to blend these interests into one pursuit."

Now 24, Stein is at least half-a-dozen years younger than many of the other fellows in the program.

Usually, she explains, conservators do not move into specialized study at a young age. Many tend to major in art history, then work in a museum after graduation as a guide, researcher or curatorial assistant. Years later, when they decide to pursue a master's in art conservation, many of them discover for the first time the field's heavy emphasis on chemistry. Sometimes, those interested in art conservation graduate school must take two years of pre-med-level chemistry before they are able to apply.

During her senior year at Smith College, Stein visited the Newark campus and Winterthur Museum. "I decided this is where I wanted to come," she recalls. "I had visited many conservation labs in the U.S. and in Europe during the summer and over spring breaks.

During their first year in the three-year program, Stein and the other nine graduate fellows focused on theory and materials knowledge. They learned how materials operate, about their chemical composition and how to research, treat and repair damaged pieces.

Now in her second year, Stein has chosen her specialty-objects. This means, she says, that she will concentrate on items that are not primarily paintings or paper. An 11-month internship will occur during the final year.

Currently, Stein has several objects for which she is responsible, including a 19th-century hatbox, a piece of modern Venetian glass sculpture, a 19th-century Javanese wooden puppet, a Sheffield plate lamp and a T'ang Dynasty ceramic figure.

Stein stresses research, analysis and documentation play major roles in her study and work. She explains that a strict process tracks each object from its arrival into her care, through research and repair and toward eventual completion.

Initially, documentation consumes a major portion of a conservator's time. Both color and black-and-white slides are taken. The piece is researched to determine where and when it was made, where it has been, how it was transported and what circumstances caused it to arrive at the laboratory site. Depending upon circumstances and the information needed, she says, the owners sometimes are interviewed.

Illustrations and diagrams accompany the photography. The chemical components are analyzed. A recommended plan for treatment is submitted and reviewed. During treatment, she says, more notes are taken and the progress of the effort is recorded.

"Treatment," she says, "can take from one day to several months. It can be a quick fix that requires 10 minutes of attention or 70 hours removing old glue from a joint that eventually will be put back together.

"While the cleaning can be tedious," she says, "it also can get exciting. As you clean a piece, you begin to discover details and colors that you never saw before, that were unnoticed under layers of dust and dirt. I had a wooden bowl that I thought was one color, but as I cleaned it, I found red and black painted areas and multicolored sections. When this happens, you can appreciate the item from an entirely different perspective.

"My goal," Stein says, "is to make you appreciate the object as a whole."

-Ed Okonowicz '69 '84M