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Practical Art Conservation Education: The Preservation of Tuskegee University Dioramas

This summer program of study, in collaboration with the HBCU Alliance of Museums and Galleries, Yale University, and more recently, New York University Institute for Fine Arts, has completed year four, offered virtually in June/July 2020.  Generous financial support for this program has been received from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, University of Delaware, and private donors. 

​TIP-C students cleaning the Matthew Henson diorama in June of 2018 with their supervisor. From top: Dr. Joyce Hill Stoner (University of Delaware), Telvin Wallace (North Carolina Central University), Kei Takahashi (Texas Southern University), Meaghan Hall (Fisk University). Image courtesy of Evan Krape. 

Our Two-week Introduction to Practical Conservation (TIP-C) program of study has focused on the examination and preservation of four dioramas from the Legacy Museum, Tuskegee University. These mixed media (largely plaster and painted wood) fragile dioramas were part of a series of 33 made in 1940 under the supervision of African American artist Charles Dawson. Seventy artists and craftspeople participated over a period of only three months to mount the landmark 1940 "American Negro Exposition" in Chicago. Dawson transported 20 of the original 33 to Tuskegee by 1945 and carried out early attempts at restoration. Many dioramas have deteriorated, requiring in-depth examination, stabilization treatment, and preventive care.  One project goal is to conserve all of twenty dioramas so that they may be exhibited together again while involving professional and aspiring African American art conservators as much as possible. To date, six of the dioramas have been treated: three by UD, and one each by Fisk University, Buffalo State, and the Lunder Center of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Left: TIP-C students with their sponsors in June of 2017; standing: Mack Truac (Winterthur Museum Lighting Design Coordinator), Sarah Barack (University of Delaware), Matthew Fields (University of Arkansas), Taryn Nurse (Fisk University), Devin Davis (North Carolina Central University), Michael Ewing (Fisk University), Dr. Joyce Hill Stoner (University of Delaware), Julianna Ly (University of Delaware); seated: Dr. Caryl McFarlane (HBCU Art Alliance Diversity and Inclusion Fellow) and Dr. Jontyle Robinson (Legacy Museum Curator). Image courtesy of Jim Schneck. Right: Pre-program interns working on the Reconstruction After the War diorama; from right: Tamara Dissi (University of California, Berkley), Matthew Fields (University of Arkansas), Genevieve Antoine (Tuskegee University), Dominique Williams (Spellman College), Jordan Wright (Fisk University), and paintings conservator Gwen Manthey. Image courtesy of Amber Kerr.

Through TIP-C, competitively selected students from HBCUs are provided with a comprehensive introduction to the field of art conservation, allowing them to work on all legs of the conservation "three-legged stool": art history, hand skills, and chemistry. Students work with University of Delaware faculty and Winterthur staff to learn about the history of materials and techniques associated with paper marbling, early photography, fiber and fluorescence microscopy, tempera paint making, and preventive care, among other topics. The students' experience is augmented with museum and conservation studio visits. TIP-C engages STEM students who have an interest in art or art students with an interest in science and provides them with an opportunity to combine their STEM and art interests. A preparatory program, typically including mentoring, readings, and engagement in their campus museums, is led by diversity consultant Dr. Caryl McFarlane. These projects are "public-facing," introducing visitors to these interesting works, their preservation concerns, and the field of art conservation more generally. These dioramas and their preservation were featured on CBS Sunday Morning. The past four years have seen a variety of formats and course offerings ably led by Dr. Joyce Hill Stoner for three years and Professor Nina Owczarek in summer 2020. (A Winterthur Museum and Library blog post on the dioramas is available here.) Owing to the pandemic, our 2020 session was offered to six students over six weeks, entirely online. This revised training program centered on our successful past curricula and our department's longstanding experience with student mentoring, retention, and placement. 

Left: Ambar Gonzalez (Fisk University) cleaning the Masonite background of the Beginnings of the Negro Business diorama with Shelley Paine Conservation, LLC at Fisk University. Right: ArJae Thompson (Fisk University) working on the Beginnings of the Negro Business diorama with Shelley Paine Conservation, LLC at Fisk University. Image courtesy of Shelley Paine.

While this two-week program of study and practice has centered on the Tuskegee dioramas, students are also introduced to additional aspects of conservation and collections care. This internship has allowed selected HBCU students to work with many conservation professionals and to apply scientific and artistic knowledge and skills to the preservation of cultural artifacts.  Peer-support networks have been created between the students and professional conservators and the network of American Institute for Conservation Emerging Conservation Professionals [ECPN] to further foster the students' interest in the care of collections of African American cultural heritage at their own institutions and to help them prepare for graduate study. 

The workshop organizers are pleased with the success of the TIP-C diversity initiative. Of the fourteen students who participated during the summers of 2017, 2018, and 2019, nearly 50%ave demonstrated interest in pursuing art conservation or a closely related field. All these students have been connected with professionals within the field in their area of interest with the aim of assisting the students in acquiring internships and applying to graduate schools. 

While fundraising for both programs has been the responsibility of the University of Delaware, Winterthur, UD, and the Alliance  have worked together to develop an exciting vision and to deliver programs of study that have introduced the art conservation profession to wonderfully talented and engaged  cohorts of students, while also assisting with the preservation of the rich, cultural treasures of HBCU museum and galleries.  

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  • The Department of Art Conservation
  • 303 Old College
  • University of Delaware
  • Newark, DE 19716, USA
  • Phone: 302-831-3489