This blog post series will look at United States citizens who trained abroad and are currently practicing conservation in the US. The goal of these interviews is twofold: to provide pre-program students with a starting point for understanding international training through a range of student perspectives and to bring awareness of overseas conservation training programs to conservators practicing in the United States. It is the hope that the discussion of international training will answer questions and start an open dialog of the challenges and benefits of training abroad.
This blog series takes the form of interviews with established and emerging conservators who have trained abroad. Each interviewee offers their personal and professional perspective. So, while themes are apparent throughout these interviews, no single interview can summarize all the challenges and rewards of international training.
These interviews do not reflect the opinions of AIC or the training programs being discussed. The series has been created to reflect a range of experiences, and the personal accounts will not reflect the views of all students from any specific program.
Our first interviewee is Emma Schmitt, a 2014 graduate of The University of Glasgow, Centre for Textile Conservation and Technical Art History.
What is Your Name, Specialty and Current position?
Emma Schmitt, Textiles, Mellon Fellow at Denver Museum of Art
Why did you pick your specialty?
I chose textiles because I come from a family of fiber crafters. My mother taught me embroidery when I was eight, starting a life-long passion for what could be done with needle and thread. I did everything from making clothes to quilts, and dabbled in tatting and knitting. In college, I made costumes for theatre productions and was recruited to work for a resident opera company, where I eventually managed the costume shop for a summer. Fibers and textiles are part of who I am; I cannot imagine working in any other specialty.
Can you describe your training pathway?
In 2006, I began working at the Buffalo Museum of Science in Buffalo, New York where I assisted with inventory, collections management, integrated pest management, and exhibit installation. I helped to install objects treated by the Buffalo State conservation students and learned about the field of conservation. That fall I began my undergraduate degree in Archaeology and continued to work at the Buffalo Museum of Science.. In additional to completing more coursework to prepare for graduate school, I worked at ICA-Art Conservation (5 months) and the Museum of Fine Arts Boston (11 months) before I began my training in Glasgow at the Centre for Textile Conservation and Technical Art History.
My decision to go to Glasgow was not an easy one. I admit that I am first a Buffalo Girl, and while there is an art conservation program in my hometown, I found the idea of training there limiting. The Centre for Textile Conservation and Technical Art History opened in Glasgow in 2010, the year I graduated from college. It caught my attention when I was researching conservation training programs for textiles.
I applied to the graduate programs at Buffalo, WUDPAC, and Glasgow. I was accepted to the program in Glasgow, but was rejected from both American programs. This forced me to decide between going abroad for a specialty I knew I wanted or wait another year and continue pre-program training. The conservators I worked with and who I looked up to advised American training which followed their own experience. I eventually chose to attend the Glasgow program because it was well-respected within the specialty and I wanted to begin school, to reduce the financial burden of volunteering, and advance my career. While I felt I would need to work hard to maintain my contacts in the US, I hoped I had a strong enough network from my pre-program work to help with reintegration after my graduate training.
To ensure I had a strong base to return to the US, I worked on projects in graduate school that were multi-media in nature which helped to enhance my skills in research and networking with the international conservation community. My major summer placement was at Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum where I worked with organic and ethnographic collections. As my primary placement, it lasted 8 weeks and took place in the summer between my first and second year. I also made sure to maintain contact with American conservators. A supplementary placement that same summer at the Cleveland Museum of Art allowed me to go to the 2013 AIC annual conference to strengthen my network of American colleagues
I was incredibly lucky to have met a private conservator before my departure to the UK who was thrilled by my choice to train across the pond, as she had. She encouraged me to contact her when I finished school. This relationship, which I fostered throughout my training via email and updates, led to me coming back to the US with a job. After graduation, I spent nine months working under her, which was invaluable for my transition into the American conservation community by working with a European-trained American practitioner. Before the end of my first year back in the US, I moved Denver to take my current position as the Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Textile Conservation at the Denver Art Museum.
What were the advantages of your program of choice: Personal/Professional
I am a proud alumna of the University of Glasgow Centre for Textile Conservation and Technical Art History. My time abroad gave me incredible opportunities and helped me to grow both personally and professionally in ways that would have not been possible had I stayed within the US.
Professionally, the training program’s committed focus in textile conservation means students have the opportunity to work with a number of different objects within the medium. The textile specialty is surprisingly all encompassing since metal, paper, and plastics are often incorporated. While Glasgow only taught textiles, there were times when materials showed up that forced me to consult outside the Centre and do expansive research into materials. The interdisciplinary nature of the objects encouraged networking, discussion, and research to ensure a treatment was safe and effective. It has made me much more self-driven to find answers as they were never right down the hall.
My time in Glasgow gave me the opportunity to meet colleagues from Japan, Australia, Poland, and around the UK. We approached things differently, whether that came from experiences, culture, or past training. Seeing how other people react to the same object makes you think a bit more broadly and helps keep an open mind. These subtle cultural differences don’t always make a conference paper; they are softer aspects of approach that enhance my thought process and evolve my practice. Despite international distances, we still remain in contact, and they help keep my mind open to different approaches and traditions.
Personally, studying abroad was one very effective way to take this small-town girl out of her comfort zone. As a rather extreme introvert, this move was double the challenge: it took away my ability to drive home every day or on a long weekend, and it stripped away my support system completely. I now know that embracing the challenge to move and meet new people can form wonderful relationships. At the same time, I also know what I can do alone, and that is incredibly empowering.
Being abroad has advantages. I travelled in Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, and throughout the UK. Seeing the world is a wonderful thing, and I learned so much from spending time in other countries, struggling with language barriers, seeing art I’d only seen in books, and . I have become more aware of this upon my return to the US and working with European curators and colleagues. I was surrounded by the British ways of speaking and writing and absorbed them into my own approach. I am aware of how sometimes a desire or goal can be stated in a very indirect way. It is an incredibly subtle shift that, until you are immersed in it, is rather difficult to comprehend or even recognize until you are placed back into the blunt American world. Knowing this and learning how to temper
yourself and gauge the world that you are in is an invaluable skill.
I lived my first year in the dorms in Glasgow, which was a strangely brilliant decision that has led to wonderful friendships with English and Business students from India and Pakistan. These women opened my eyes and challenged my thinking, which truly broke me out of my American bubble. It also helps to have someone look at you as if you were crazy and laugh hysterically when you explain that you just spent the day washing Baron Lister’s underpants. It was a good reminder that 100% conservation focus is not 100% healthy.
What were the disadvantages of your program of choice: Personal/Professional
The US and the UK training programs are different; this is a fact and should not be overlooked. In overly general terms when American schools are discussed, Winterthur is seen as more scientific, Buffalo excels at bonding students to objects, and NYU teaches the conservator as an Art Historian. In Glasgow, I was bound to textiles and that tradition from day one. Old repairs and work on these objects was often undertaken because they were utilitarian, or the ‘skill’ needed to make the repair was something most women had. While this aspect permeates other specialties, in textiles it is the norm. They require extensive knowledge and skill in that base craft to conserve. A single specialty program, though it produced a conservator with a narrow focus, crafted the defined skill set that is needed for the work
The greatest challenge professionally is coming back to the US with a limited network. I cannot tell you how many times I have picked up my phone and wished I could call on a classmate for their opinion or to draw from a shared experience. The other disadvantage is that Glasgow’s program is two years, which really cannot be compared to American training programs. I did not have the generalized first year nor the final-year internship. I have been told I was not looked at as a candidate until after I was in the US for a year, which was considered the equivalent of filling out my training. This was my experience and not everyone’s, so there are cases where that lack of internship is a non-issue.
The hardest aspect of coming back to the US is the reproach I have felt for my choice to train abroad. I have been questioned as to why I chose Glasgow and not a US program. It can be incredibly shocking when someone questions your training choice, and I have often taken this personally, for good or for bad. As I said earlier, I stand behind my training decision: it fit me and my background and challenged me in areas that I see as my most obvious weaknesses. I find explaining that to someone is difficult, and it’s often hard to avoid appearing defensive.
Personally, I found the disadvantages came in the form of the time difference and distance. Being abroad for two years meant that I did not go home often. I was in the US for 6 weeks one summer, and I spent 48 hours with my family during those six weeks. I missed my family, I lost contact with friends, I missed a number of major life events. While we live in a global environment today, knowing what’s happening in your home country is different than living in your home country.
Financially, the decision to go abroad was not easy. Admittedly I had a lot of help from my family, which is not something everyone has. European programs are not funded in the same way as most American training programs and a $30,000 – $50,000 debt is not something that should be taken on lightly. I was able to get assistance through the University and the Centre’s Foundation, which paid for about half of my tuition. As an American, I was not eligible for many of the funds that my classmates were, which made it harder for me to find outside sources of funding. However, I did not exhaust all avenues in that search because I had support. I know there are financial opportunities out there, but the deadlines are easily missed, and many just did not apply to foreign students.
What advice do you have for pre-programmers considering a similar path?
My choice to study abroad was a deeply personal one. It was not undertaken lightly or without knowing the challenges that could arise. I strongly believe that this choice should not be judged or considered as a way to get out of the requirements of the American programs, and it should not be thought of as an easy way into the field. I feel my choice to attend a foreign program in conservation is a testament to my strength, perseverance, and knowledge of myself and my goals.
My advice is simple: Know what you want and be confident in your choice. Self-doubt is inevitable in this field as we struggle to find jobs or make ends meet, so don’t add your own distrust of your training. You need to know or expect the cost—monetary and personal—and be sure you are set to carry that weight. Don’t rush, it will feel like the end goal is grad school, but enjoy your pre-program experiences. Explore things; don’t block yourself off out of fear or lack of knowledge. Be your best advocate; form relationships and maintain them. You will struggle, no matter the choice, because graduate school is meant to be challenging and the first few years working in the field offer their own trials. However, if this is your passion, if you wake up and cannot imagine yourself doing anything else, then those challenges and struggles are completely worth it.