History of the Center

In the late 1950s, when the Fogg Museum at Harvard University ceased to accept apprentices, no opportunities for formal academic training in conservation existed in North America. To foster the idea of a training program under the jurisdiction of a university, Sheldon Keck suggested to Craig Hugh Smyth, director of the Institute of Fine Arts, that the school consider introducing coursework in art conservation. As the Institute’s mission was to provide graduate education in art, archaeology, and museum training, conservation seemed a logical addition to its curriculum. A conference that included lectures by Carolyn and Sheldon Keck, conservators at the Brooklyn Museum, was sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation to explore the prospect of conservation education. The outcome was a statement justifying the need for such a program. The statement helped convince the Institute of Fine Arts to move forward and provided a compelling argument for funding.

In 1958, a proposal was submitted to the Rockefeller Foundation requesting initial financial support. In addition to Sheldon Keck and Craig Hugh Smyth, other signees included George Stout, director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum; Murray Pease, conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and Frederick B. Adams, Jr., director of the Pierpont Morgan Library. As conceived, the program called for equal measures of art historical study, scientific training, and practical conservation experience. The goal was to produce a professional who would approach each object as a separate and individual problem, the solution to which would be determined through research and study, unlike the tradesman restorer’s approach, which applied standard treatments to objects and problems.

The application was successful, and in 1960, the Conservation Center opened its modest laboratory in the cellar and sub-basement of the James B. Duke House. Five students were accepted into the first class, which included Mary Todd Glaser, Phoebe Dent Weil, and Benjamin Johnson. When they began their studies, the faculty consisted of Research Associate Lawrence J. Majewski and Visiting Scientist Edward Sayre (who was succeeded in the spring term by Visiting Scientist Robert Feller). In September 1961, Sheldon Keck joined the staff as director of the Conservation Center, while Dr. Seymour Lewin and Dr. Jane Sheridan were hired as professors of conservation science.

From its inception, research in the properties of materials and the processes of deterioration was carried out in the Conservation Center. Among the earliest research studies were Lawrence Majewski’s and Edward Sayre’s study of the deterioration of Giotto’s frescos in the Arena Chapel, Padua, carried out in cooperation with Leonetto Tintori’s and Seymour Lewin’s long term investigation of the mechanisms of stone deterioration which was begun at the urging of Ugo Procacci, superintendent of monuments in Florence. It was this study that brought Norbert Baer, then a research assistant to Professor Lewin, to the Conservation Center in 1965.

Dr. Baer began teaching at the Center in 1969, and in 1986 was named Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Conservation. He also served as co-Chairman of the Center from 1975 to 1983, and again as Acting Chairman in 1986. Lawrence Majewski’s role in the program also expanded over the years. He became Chairman of the Center in 1966 after Sheldon Keck’s departure. He remained in that position until his retirement more than two decades later. Margaret Holben Ellis, currently the Eugene Thaw Professor of Paper Conservation, succeeded him as Chair in 1987, and in 2002, Michele D’Arcy Marincola, another Conservation Center graduate, succeeded her as Sherman Fairchild Chairman and Professor of Conservation.

The Conservation Center was initially housed in the former kitchen and wine cellar of the James B. Duke House until 1983, when it was moved across the street into a renovated townhouse at 14 East 78th Street — re-named the Stephen Chan House.

From its earliest days, the Conservation Center curriculum placed strong emphasis on the technical study of artists’ materials and practices and on the integration of art historical and technical knowledge. This has not changed but, just as the facilities of the Conservation Center were expanded in response to changing requirements, the curriculum has evolved in response to changes in the field.

Many Conservation Center students chose to specialize in the conservation of paintings. The establishment of the Samuel H. Kress Program in Paintings Conservation in 1991 enriched the paintings conservation program by providing those students with the opportunity to examine and treat museum quality early Italian Renaissance paintings from Kress regional collections across the United States under the guidance of master conservators.

Conservation Center students had long spent summers working at the Institute of Fine Arts’ sponsored excavations. Those students who came away from their summer with a desire to work with archaeological materials needed specialized training. With support from the National Endowment for Humanities, the Center developed a specialized training program in archaeological and ethnographic conservation.

A specialization in modern and contemporary art was recently added as a program of study, which incorporates studies of new materials, media, and theories of art production with a thorough education in traditional materials and methods of art.

The core curriculum, the set of courses that all conservation students take, was developed decades earlier at a time when the focus in conservation was on the treatment of individual objects rather than on preventive conservation and prioritizing care of large collections, which have assumed larger roles today. Consequently, a review of the core curriculum and sequence of classes offered in the first two years of study was undertaken in 2003-2005. This review led to the development and phased implementation of a new core curriculum. A stronger science curriculum was envisioned for the core curriculum and, thus a new professorship in conservation science was established. In 2006, Dr. Hannelore Roemich, formerly of the European Science Foundation in Brussels and an expert in preventive conservation, was appointed to the position.

From 2008-2011, while Chairman Marincola served as Deputy and then Interim Director of the Institute in 2008/09, Professor Roemich was appointed Acting Chairman of the Conservation Center. During this time, the Conservation Center celebrated its 50th Anniversary in 2010, bringing together friends and alumni from all across the U.S., Switzerland, Canada and Japan. Professors Roemich and Baer coordinated the Center’s first workshop abroad, “The Interface Between Field Archaeology and Conservation”, held at the newly established NYU campus in Abu Dhabi. Professors Roemich, Ellis and Marincola led the Center to design and implement a Library & Archive program following the closure of the Preservation and Archive program at the University of Texas at Austin in 2009. With generous funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Center admitted its first Library and Archives majors to the incoming class of 2011.

Since its earliest days, students in the Conservation Center program have had access to the resources of the great museums and collections of New York City, and around the world, on both a formal and an informal basis. Conservation Center graduates have held positions of authority in all of these museums.

For further reading:
Training in Conservation
A Symposium on the Occasion of the Dedication of the Stephen Chan House