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News Training the people who are saving our culture

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​Portraits of ARTC Chair Debra Hess Norris, by Vincent Ricardel for The Magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

​The life-long work of ARTC Chair Debra Hess Norris—to train new generations of conservators—is celebrated in the Spring 2019 issue of The Magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities. From an article by Jordan Howell:

It’s been said that half of all photograph conservators in the Unites States have been trained by Norris in her decades-long career as a professor of photograph conservation at the University of Delaware, where she is also the Unidel Henry Francis du Pont Chair in Fine Arts and director of the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, one of only four art conservation graduate programs in the nation. Graduates from the Delaware program have conserved some of the most significant artifacts from our shared cultural heritage, including the Declaration of Independence, the Star-Spangled Banner, the Emancipation Proclamation, Babe Ruth’s baseball contract, Elvis Presley’s 81 gold records, the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, Polaroid photographs by Andy Warhol, the Treaty of Paris, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the original C-3PO from the movie Star Wars, the 1905 Wright Flyer III, George Washington’s dentures and—perhaps most importantly for Norris, a lifelong Beatles fan—a rare photo album of the Beatles from 1961 to 1963.

Norris has also traveled the world organizing training programs to preserve cultural heritage. She’s taught workshops in dozens of countries on every continent except Antarctica, and in doing so has become a global leader in the fight to preserve cultural heritage.

In 2009, as Iraq slowly emerged from years of sectarian violence, Norris worked closely with the U.S. Department of State and the Coalition Provisional Authority to develop the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage, a program in Erbil, which, among other things, trained in the excavation of mass graves. In 2014 and 2015, as ISIS rampaged across Iraq and Syria, Norris traveled to Jordan and Lebanon, respectively, to host workshops as part of the Middle East Photograph Preservation Initiative. Just two months after Hurricane Matthew battered Cuba in 2016, Norris was in Havana, holding workshops to train conservators on how to restore photographs damaged by floodwaters. Since 1997, she has secured over $20 million in external grants, including almost $2.5 million from the National Endowment for the Humanities, to fund conservation efforts worldwide.

The list goes on. Her curriculum vitae is 27 pages of very small print.

“She doesn’t show stress,” says Joyce Hill Stoner, professor and painting conservator at the University of Delaware. “She’s usually too busy calming other people down. That’s why she doesn’t lose her calm. It is typical that extreme amounts of photo archives are part of the disaster. She’s trained to manage horrendous situations.”

Last year, Norris won the Francis Alison Award, the highest honor given to faculty at the University of Delaware, thanks in part to letters of support that arrived from far and wide. “During my 34-year career as an art conservator, no one has contributed more to the advancement of art-conservation education and awareness around the world than Debbie,” wrote Marc Harnly, senior conservator and head of the department of paper conservation at the J. Paul Getty Museum. “Arguably the best-known conservator in the world, she has made it her mission to take her skill as an educator to the furthest corners of the planet.”

“She has done more to save world heritage, in my opinion, than any other conservator, professor or foundation,” wrote Anne-Imelda Radice, then executive director at the American Folk Art Museum (and currently the director of Public Programs at NEH). “To me she has always been a force of nature.”

“Indeed,” wrote Nora W. Kennedy, photo conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “she gives her heart and her soul for the betterment of humankind altogether. There is no cause too small and no cause too massive—if it will achieve good, she commits to it and sees it through to the successful conclusion.”

The need for this global leadership has never been more urgent, for the cultural heritage of every nation is threatened by climate change, conflict, political division or just downright neglect. The planet is embroiled in crises. Things really do fall apart. Last September, Brazil lost 20 million artifacts documenting 12,000 years of history in just six hours to fire.


To read more about Norris's career in conservation, and about the far-reaching impact of her work, read the full NEH Magazine article, here.

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The life-long work, and far-reaching impact, of ARTC Chair Debra Hess Norris is celebrated in the new issue of The Magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The life-long work, and far-reaching impact, of ARTC Chair Debra Hess Norris is celebrated in the new issue of The Magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

4/12/2019
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  • The Department of Art Conservation
  • 303 Old College
  • University of Delaware
  • Newark, DE 19716, USA
  • Phone: 302-831-3489
  • art-conservation@udel.edu