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In Memoriam: Dr. Peter Sparks

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Photo of a man in a suit, standing in front of a painting.

​​​​

​Dr. Pet​er Sparks (image courtesy Margaret Holley Sparks​).

It is with sadness that we share the news that Dr. Peter Sparks, who in collaboration with Charlie Hummel founded our graduate program in 1974, passed away on March 16, 2022.

Dr. Sparks directed our Program for six years after which he worked for two other UD departments/centers and then pursued work in the art conservation field, including directing the Preservation Office at the Library of Congress. Some of you will remember with fondness Dr. Sparks's commitment to the Program and his students, and how he personally arranged all summer projects. From the beginning, Dr. Sparks invested in top-of-the-line scientific instrumentation, hired visiting experts to further strengthen our science curriculum, and worked to secure full-tuition scholarships for all students.  

Charlie Hummel shared the following recollection: “Peter Sparks was a critical and important co-founder of the third art conservation training program in the United States. At the dedication of the Winterthur Research Building in 1969, Harold Plenderleith, Director, International Centre For Conservation, Rome, Italy, stated that not enough museum conservators were being trained to replace those leaving the profession due to retirement, illness, or death. His statement had a profound impact on Peter Sparks. In June 1969, both Winterthur Museum and the University of Delaware, discussed a proposal for a graduate program to educate and train art conservators."

Between 1970 and 1973, Peter Sparks, an administrator in the Department of Chemistry at UD,  had the difficult task of convincing University staff, especially in the science departments, that this new graduate training program would not be a “Manual Training Program." Under the direction of Dr. Sparks and despite these roadblocks, staff and administrators at Winterthur and the University developed curricula, admission standards, and core course requirements for a three-year training program leading to a Master of Science in Art Conservation

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Five men standing together in front of a row of trees.

WUDPAC professors in 1974. Left to right: E. Greenfield (chemistry)​, P. Leavens (geology), P. Sparks (chemistry), T. Brill (chemistry), W. Weaver (textiles)​. (Image courtesy Joyce Hill Stoner.)

Early in 1973, Dr. Sparks and Charles Hummel were invited to a conference involving representatives from existing training programs, major foundations, the Smithsonian Institution, and U. S. Senator Pell's office. For the conference, Dr. Sparks prepared a comprehensive demographic study that clearly showed that the number of conservators in the United States retiring far exceeded the number of conservators graduating from the existing programs. His study also noted that existing programs focused on conservation of fine art to the neglect of decorative art objects, books, natural history collections and photographs. As a result of that conference and owing to Dr. Sparks' tenacity and commitment, study grants were obtained to enable WUDPAC to begin its training program soon thereafter.

Early members of the WUDPAC cohort recently gathered on Zoom and shared memories of Dr. Sparks:

“Along with Charles Hummel, Dr. Sparks had a huge impact on my life. I clearly remember being warmly welcomed by both gentlemen during interviews. The positive impressions they made on me led to my choosing Winterthur as my first choice. It was clear to me then, as it is now, that Winterthur was and remains tops!" (Rita Albertson, Class of 1982)

​"The program is now so established and organized​ from years of trial, error and adjustments. During the first years, everything was new and untested. Dr. Sparks was in attendance nearly every day, either observing, teaching or just checking in to make sure everything was running smoothly and everyone was doing okay. He was completely involved and dedicated, not only to making the program succeed, but in making sure each one of us had every opportunity to become a well-trained conservator. Not everything did go according to schedule. I remember having the continuation of polymer science lecture by Dr. Sparks on a Saturday morning with the six of us in in our apartment (Tina, Shelley and I shared a townhouse together our first year) at 8 am. He was always listening to our suggestions and really tried to incorporate as many as possible. I will always remember that after I expressed interest in objects at the beginning of my first year, Dr. Sparks took me as his guest to the opening of the new wing at the Walters Art Museum in 1974. He made a special effort to introduce me to the myriad of guests including the heads of conservation departments, and grant agencies. It did turn out well as I did my internship at the Walters with Terry Drayman-Weisser, who I met at the event. When I think about days at Winterthur, the people I think about first are Dr. Sparks and my classmates.​" (Meg L​oew Craft, Class of 1977)

Our thoughts go out to Dr. Sparks's family and the many friends, colleagues, and students who hold him close in their hearts. He will be missed.​​

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It is with sadness that we share the news that Dr. Peter Sparks, who in collaboration with Charlie Hummel founded our graduate program in 1974, passed away on March 16, 2022.
5/2/2022
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