Christian de Brer held up to eye level a pre-Columbian ceramic vessel. A UCLA/Getty master's student in archaeological and ethnographic conservation, de Brer was to prepare the piece for public display, but that was easier said than done.
“It's pretty holey,” he commented.
The challenge notwithstanding, de Brer is probably the envy of his peers in the academic world. As a member of the inaugural class of the UCLA/Getty Master's Program on the Conservation of Ethnographic and Archaeological Materials, de Brer and his classmates are the first to use new facilities at what surely ranks as one of the world's most scenic venues for graduate studies — the blufftop Getty Villa overlooking the ocean in Malibu.
The UCLA/Getty program prepares students for work as conservators of art and cultural objects, perhaps with museums, ethnographic groups or indigenous communities. “It's a very specialized and small field, but the work can be quite varied, which is one of the exciting things about conservation,” said UCLA Professor David Scott, the program's chair.
Students will spend two years in the classroom and lab, followed by a one-year internship. Coursework began last fall at the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, the program's academic home.
The UCLA/Getty endeavor fills a glaring void in the world of conservation education. Until now, students keen on pursuing such careers had to attend the University of Delaware, NYU or SUNY-Buffalo. “It's been a long time coming to this side of America,” noted Scott, who headed the Getty Conservation Institute's Museum Services Research Laboratory from 1987 to 2003.
Such conservation programs are hugely expensive undertakings. Neither the Getty nor UCLA would have been able to singlehandedly launch the program, Scott said. “UCLA provides the faculty positions for the teaching staff, and the Getty provides this magnificent two-story building in Malibu,” he said.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, students jumped into their first lab assignment: the evaluation of pre-Columbian ceramics. The idea is to try to prepare the pieces as if for display – without losing the original aesthetic.
Student Steven Pickman inspected a container that dated to A.D. 1300. He could tell by the lack of detail in the painting that “it was just an everyday vessel.” He hoped that, as his work progresses, the piece will surrender more information.
In this aspect of the program, too, the UCLA/Getty students enjoy a rare privilege: working with authentic objects. The UCLA Fowler Museum, among its vast collection, was able to provide some artifacts that were poorly conserved before their arrival in Westwood. “We’re grateful to the Fowler Museum that our students can get this hands-on experience,” said the Cotsen Institute’s Julia Sanchez. “This is an unusual program, and the participation of the Fowler is one more thing that sets it apart.”