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Lessons from the Pandemic: WUDPAC goes virtual

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​Remote learning materials for textile block prepared by a team of seven faculty, interns, and volunteers.

​When Kathy Gillis entered the three-year Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC) in the early 1990s to earn her Master's degree, she planned to be a photographs conservator. Then she was introduced to furniture conservation: “I picked up a chisel and felt the wood, and I knew this was what I wanted to do," said Gillis, who today is the Elizabeth Terry Seaks Senior Furniture Conservator at Winterthur. She is also an Affiliated Assistant Professor for WUDPAC, which is jointly sponsored by the University of Delaware and the Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library where Gillis spends each day.

Not every WUDPAC student experiences Gillis's type of “ah ha" moment. But touching, investigating, and working in direct contact with a range of materials and tools, often under magnification, is typically a critical part of becoming an art conservator. In the first year, each entering class of ten students is introduced to nine different areas of specialization – furniture, library and archival materials, paintings, paper, photographs, inorganic and organic objects, preventive conservation, and textiles — during intensive, three-week blocks of class time during which all classes are related to a particular material. From these possibilities, they choose a “major" that will determine the direction of their careers; the blocks are designed to encourage just such “ah ha" moments.

​The choice of majors drives the second year, during which the students complete examination, treatment, and collection care projects and scientific studies while working in Winterthur's well-equipped Louise du Pont Crowninshield Research Building. It also impacts the third year, when students carry out one or more on-site internships in this country, abroad, or both.

And so, when the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown forced WUDPAC teaching to go completely virtual in mid-March 2020, the program faced many challenges. By the fall of 2020, new challenges included safely scheduling second-year students to continue work in the Research Building with Winterthur's permission—but masked, physically distanced, and with limits on how many people could be in conservation laboratory or studio at the same time. Third-year students were assisted in finding substitute experiences when pre-scheduled internship sites continued with lockdowns.​

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​Left: William Donnelly, Associate Preventive Conservator and Affiliated Assistant WUDPAC Professor, creating his remote instruction set up. Right: Conservator of Textiles and Affiliated Assistant WUDPAC Professor​ Katherine Sahmel's remote demonstration of textile testing for wet cleaning.

Especially daunting was the challenge of providing our ten first-year students with the intensive and partly hands-on introduction to art conservation that would form the basis for the rest of their education, and careers. However, in the summer of 2021, as the program prepares for a mix of in-person and remote instruction this September, we can look back at a largely successful year that featured many unexpected lessons for the future.

​To be sure, 2020-2021 was a difficult academic year for both students and faculty. Remote lectures over Zoom, improvised projects carried out at home, demonstrations using phones attached to drafting arms, as well the stress and isolation felt by students living far from family and friends during a pandemic, all required adjustment and flexibility. However, the shutdown experience has introduced possibilities that are likely to affect art conservation education at WUDPAC in the future.

“For years, our field has considered how can we effectively build knowledge and skills globally in collaboration with others. We regularly questioned if we could do this work online," said Debbie Hess Norris, Chair of the Department of Art Conservation and Professor of Photograph Conservation. “And we'd conclude 'no, it's impossible.' But now, we've learned that 'yes,' there are aspects of our hands-on intensive teaching we can do successfully remotely."

When the shutdown order came, WUDPAC Associate Director Joelle Wickens had already begun talking with faculty about various “what if" scenarios, and some faculty had started to prepare. Even so, the shutdown came as a shock, with changes that had to be made literally overnight. “It was crazy, really," recalled Wickens, remembering in particular the ongoing inorganic block that went remote almost overnight. “But at the time, everyone was thinking 'oh well, it will just be a couple of weeks until we flatten the curve.'"​

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​Left: Melissa Tedone, Lab Head for Book and Library Materials and Affiliate Associate WUDPAC Professor, teaching the library conservation block in person (2018) and on Zoom (2020). (Students at left: Natalya Swanson, Jennifer Myers, Lindsey Zachman, Tracy Liu, and Julianna Ly.) 

​The next hurdle arrived the following week, in the end of March 2020, when 27 applicants were scheduled to interview with the faculty Admissions Committee for the ten spots in the Class of 2023 master's program. All were contacted and told to prepare for remote interviews and portfolio presentations, while the committee took a crash course in Zoom. “Admissions Week was both a success and an important morale booster," said Wickens. “We thought it would be a disaster, that there's no way we could get to know these students," she said. “But by the end of the week, we thought, 'that was OK!' I think it was really important for us as a faculty. It proved we could make it work." (The 2021 March Admissions Week was again remote and a success, and Wickens anticipates holding it online “for the foreseeable future," partly because it relieves applicants of the cost and time required to make a trip to Delaware.)

By the following week in spring 2020, when the textiles block was slated to begin, it was clear that the shutdown was not going to end after two weeks. It fell to Laura Mina, Associate Conservator of Textiles & Head of the Textile Lab and Affiliated Assistant WUDPAC Professor, and Katherine Sahmel, Conservator of Textiles and also Affiliated Assistant WUDPAC Professor, to “test drive" many new teaching methods their colleagues would incorporate during the year ahead. With the help of three volunteers and two interns, Mina and Sahmel planned their online curriculum while reaching out to guest lecturers to help prepare them. “The guest lecturers were almost incredulous," said Mina. “They thought Winterthur was blowing this up a bit. But when the time came, they pivoted, too."

The textile instructors' first step was to prepare a box of course materials to be sent home with each student for use during class sessions, setting an example for other courses in the year ahead. The students picked up packed boxes at the beginning of each block (some courses begin mid-semester) and returned them at the end of the course so the boxes could be repacked for the next set of courses.​

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​Zoom lessons in textile crease reduction with Laura Mina (left), furniture conservation demonstration of adhesive properties with Kathy Gillis (center), and WUDPAC class of 2022 student Annabelle Camp during an emergency response exercise led by WUDPAC Associate Director Joelle Wickens and William Donnelly, Winterthur Associate Preventive Conservator and Affiliated Assistant WUDPAC Professor (right).

In the first-year paper conservation block, for example, the box contents included paper pulp for use in making pulp fills, small envelopes of quality papers, study prints, historical book bindings from the WUDPAC study collection, powdered wheat starch paper, paints, and non-toxic solvents, and much more. “Whether the boxes included didactic materials or surface cleaning supplies such as special erasers and soft brushes, the packages were lifesavers," said Norris. Eight local students also received polarizing light microscopes (to help assess wavelength-dependent material properties); luckily, the two students in far-flung locations were able to secure microscopes as well. 

The boxes were not always a perfect solution. Paintings conservator Matthew Cushman, for instance, was challenged with finding safe solvents he could send students for the paintings block, while furniture conservator Gillis found she could not give students the same experience with woodworking they could receive in the labs. “I couldn't send them home with chisels and saws," she said. “I couldn't let them use tools they may never have used before, unsupervised." 

Even so, the boxes provided new insights. During the pre-pandemic photographic materials block, students worked on-site with access to boxes of photographs they could examine. By comparison, each box Norris sent home contained only 75 to 80 photographs from mid-19th century daguerreotypes to modern digital prints. She discovered that because the students were “living" with the photographs, they examined the images more closely than when they encountered similar examples in the lab. “They studied the photographs intensely," Norris said, adding that she may send historical and contemporary images home with future students. “They were not as overwhelmed as they are in a lab with boxes of unidentified photographs."

After the boxes of materials were sent home, the next step was to connect the students with their instructors. Mina and Sahmel developed techniques for doing this with the help of William Donnelly, Associate Preventive Conservator and Affiliated Assistant WUDPAC Professor. Donnelly received his Master's degree in Preventive Conservation through an online program offered by Northumbria University in England. From this experience, he said, he knew what could be possible and that remote instruction could be done successfully.  

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​@ud_artconservation Instagram sharing some of the many activities from textile block.

​Donnelly and Sahmel first devised a phone mount, using a drafting table arm, that could hold a smart phone parallel to a worktable. This allowed instructors to demonstrate techniques in real time as they were lecturing over Zoom. In addition to helping some of his colleagues overcome their anxiety about learning new technologies, Donnelly encountered other challenges: “One issue was that some people still had desktop computers," he said. “That was fine for other kinds of work, but they needed something with more flexibility if they were going to be able to project images of the worktable. And some people still had flip top phones." The Department of Art Conservation purchased equipment for faculty use to ensure we were operating with the best technologies possible. 

As instructors learned to work with new technologies, they found unexpected advantages. One advantage was that each student watching a new technique being demonstrated on Zoom often had a clearer view than was available when an instructor and ten students crowded around a table to watch an in-person demonstration. As the number of these of emergency videos increased, instructors began building video libraries, ready to be accessed by future students, a new resource for the program. “It was definitely an eye-opener to see what was possible," said Melissa Tedone, Lab Head for Book and Library Materials and Affiliate Associate WUDPAC Professor; "We had to use Zoom out of necessity. It opened our eyes to new possibilities and ways of teaching."

Zoom also made possible remote presentations by experts located across the globe. Tedone and others arranged for lectures by experts located in Trinidad, Hong Kong, Mexico, Lebanon, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Boston, Canada, the United Kingdom, South Africa, and elsewhere, including many who had never before lectured online. In summer of 2021, a month-long intensive course in bookbinding was taught to students by an instructor from his studio in New York City, and another class will be taught in the fall by an instructor in Germany. “They would never have been able to come to Winterthur," said Tedone. “We cannot afford to fly someone from Hong Kong to Winterthur/UD to teach briefly. The instructors loved the opportunity to interact with the students through Zoom. The experiences were much richer and more rewarding [than recorded presentations]."

The faculty is grateful to the WUDPAC students for their ability and willingness to embrace online education. Faculty members also became aware of the difficulties students faced during a year in which they experienced stress and depression related to isolation and Zoom fatigue, anxieties about the well-being of distant family members and friends, and the anguish brought on by outside events, especially the George Floyd shooting and subsequent demonstrations.

“I can't imagine we'll go back to how things used to happen, ever," said Cushman, who, like his colleagues, looks forward to teaching in person again. “Apart from new initiatives like online lectures that will continue, I think it has been a time for faculty to assess how much time they expect students to be on site, and how much time they themselves need to be on site. [The shutdown] made it easier for us to be flexible, and to think about a better work/life balance." For Wickens, such a work/life balance might extend to future students in certain specialties or situations who would not come to WUDPAC in person: “I'm looking forward to investigating ways to take the graduate experience to people who could never consider moving to Delaware for their education," she said, “perhaps because of a family situation or because interrupting your life for three years may not be possible. What this has taught us is that we can take [some types of] conservation education to people in different parts of the country, and the world. I'm looking forward to that."

The challenges of the past year have been met with resilience and creativity by the faculty, staff, and students of the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation. We came together, drew on our resources, and shared plenty of “ah ha" moments. We look forward to taking what we learned together to build a stronger, richer, and more engaging experience for our students in the years to come.
 
[Our thanks to Cece Torok for working with faculty and students to create this reflection on the WUDPAC pandemic experience.]​

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