A Look at the Cotsen Conservation Program at 20

Founding of the Program

Frequently the image of a conservator involves someone carefully retouching an ancient painting. But the field of conservation can be much broader, according to those who are directly involved. “I remember visiting one of our Belgian students who was working in a British Museum outbuilding conserving an Inuit gut-skin parka,” recalls distinguished professor emeritus David A. Scott, the first director of the UCLA conservation program, part of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA. Currently celebrating its 20th anniversary, the conservation program is now known as the UCLA/Getty Program in the Conservation of Cultural Heritage.

First class in the Getty Villa labThe scope of conservation efforts has definitely expanded since the program was established in 2003. “The idea of a conservation training program in Los Angeles goes back before 1986,” according to Scott, but it didn’t come to fruition until the late Lloyd Cotsen persuaded then-professor Chip Stanish that “this was a good idea for the West Coast,” Scott explained. “The establishment of the posts for the faculty was a long and complex task,” he continued, and “by 2004, we were able to accept our first students. We decided to take in six students every second year, and we have continued to bring students in for twenty years now. Of course, it hardly seems possible that it was 20 years ago,” Scott remarked.

“It was really the Getty’s idea to create our program,” according to Glenn Wharton, chair of the program since 2019. Part of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA, it was then known as the Interdepartmental Program (IDP) in Conservation of Archaeological and Ethnographic Materials. “The Getty did research and decided that our country needed a program in cultural heritage conservation and eventually decided on UCLA. In the end, they funded our program and built beautiful state-of-the-art labs at the Getty Villa, supported our faculty and staff, and helped support our students with an endowment,” Wharton continued. 

That initial effort by the Getty was for five years; “then they stepped back,” he explained. “So we are now an independent UCLA graduate program, but we still have very good relationships with the Getty Conservation Institute and the Getty Museum. Their staff teach in our classes, work with our students, provide opportunities, and collaborate with us in a lot of efforts,” Wharton added.

“The program was originally conceived as an analog to the graduate program on conservation of archaeological and indigenous heritage at the University College London (UCL),” according to Ellen Pearlstein, professor in the Cultural Heritage program and in UCLA Information Studies, who has been with the program since its inception. This was influenced by Scott, who had taught at UCL and by archaeological conservator Vanessa Muros, former program staff and currently director of the Cotsen Experimental and Archaeological Sciences Lab, who received her graduate degrees from UCL. Since then “…we have established strong connections with the conservation graduate programs in North America,” Pearlstein noted.

Scott recalled that “the original vision of the UCLA/Getty program was that we would take in twelve students every year, and they would then return to their home countries spreading the message of conservation.

This ambitious international intake proved difficult to maintain,” he admitted. “But many initiatives have since been made to collaborate with local indigenous and international groups, and this is obviously something that must be encouraged in the years ahead. Individual projects are much more achievable than continually recruiting students from Africa, Asia, and elsewhere. Serving communities is something that needs to continue,” he added. 


Partnership with the Getty Conservation Institute

“I think our partnership with the Getty Conservation Institute is hugely beneficial in that our faculty, which is small, is augmented by an entire Conservation Institute very close by that is also doing cutting edge research” says Pearlstein. We have “the luxury of inviting these colleagues to give guest lectures in our classes,” she continued. “We also connect with the UCLA Fowler Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Autry Museum of the American West, and the Los Angeles Natural History Museum. We continue to build our community, and this has traditionally included Indigenous museums in southern California,” she explained, and added that “we are increasingly inclusive of projects with African American collections. “One of the reasons our program is such a standout is the partnership with the Getty and all of these great repositories in Los Angeles,” according to Pearlstein.

At the beginning of the UCLA/Getty program, “We were trying very hard to give equal weight to archaeological heritage and what was then referred to as ethnographic heritage,” which has since become referred to more broadly as cultural heritage, according to Pearlstein. She explained that “ethnographic” as a term reflects an outsider’s point of view, from "our perspective of their culture."


Rethinking the program in 2019

In 2019 Glenn Wharton became chair of the program, then known as the Interdepartmental Program (IDP) in Conservation of Archaeological and Ethnographic Materials, part of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA. With his appointment, he and other faculty members, as well as students and staff, “had the opportunity to rethink the program,” he explained. “What is it we want to do? Who do we want to be in the world? What niche do we want to fill? How do we want our program to be known? What do we want to teach our students?” These were some of the questions they addressed. One of the first things they did was change the name of the program to the UCLA/Getty Interdepartmental Program in the Conservation of Cultural Heritage, Wharton noted.

“I was fortunate to come into a really well-respected program that had already made a name for itself in the field. We are building on that success,” he added. “That success had a lot to do with the scientific framing that our program was born into... there was a real effort among the faculty to embrace science and teach the students technical knowledge about artifacts: how they were made, how they deteriorate, and how to conserve them,” he continued. 

“Researching cultural heritage objects can help us learn about past cultures. And because we are at The Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA, we’ve been able to work with archaeologists and archaeology students over the years as well. We are not just preserving materials from the past, but we are learning about them through our technical studies,” Wharton added.


Name change to focus on cultural heritage

“Cultural heritage is a very wide term that embraces the built environment, such as buildings and cultural sites, which we don’t focus on. It also embraces what we call intangible cultural heritage, which we do address. We are still focused on objects, but we understand that there are intangible values embedded in these objects. Some objects are used in spiritual practices, for instance, or they are used in daily life,” Wharton explained.

As Wharton elucidated, “cultural heritage as a term is much more open, and it doesn’t honor Western culture over others. It makes them all equal. It is much more inclusive.” He added that “there are art and artifacts that people have produced all around the world, and it’s our job to take care of them for the future.”


History of inclusion

“Our students are becoming more diverse in terms of racial and ethnic backgrounds,” says Pearlstein. Since 2017, she has directed a program funded by the Mellon Foundation called the Mellon Opportunity for Diversity in Conservation which is a pipeline program that supports undergraduates to have conservation training and then mentors them toward applying to graduate schools. 

Ronel Namde teaching paper conservation “We currently have three Native American graduate students in our cohort, and they all are really interested in working with their own cultural materials.” Pearlstein noted. Two of them went through the Mellon Opportunity Program. Sometimes this diversity is the result of specific and targeted recruitment, she explained. “But other times, it is just the reputation of the program.

When she started in 2005, Pearlstein said that “I immediately wanted to emphasize working collaboratively with community. I’m from New York, and when I arrived in Los Angeles, I reached out to established tribal museums in the area and sought partnerships with tribal communities that were caring for collections. I was thrilled to be able to teach our first cohort and every cohort since in a class that’s fully engaged with an indigenous museum. We spend time at the museum and learn from people who are interpreting their own community,” she explained.

“The focus of that class has always been on basketry because basketry is such a critical California cultural expression and something that our state is really well known for,” she added. While other indigenous communities turned very quickly to making pottery, according to Pearlstein, the incredible number of grasses available influenced the preponderance of basketry here. “Ceramics were something that came substantially later to communities in California,” she noted. She has been privileged to develop “very robust partnerships, and every one of our students has benefitted from working with a weaver of great renown and great expertise. 

 “I think those concepts of working collaboratively and working with community have not only persisted, but are now flourishing. It is something that the program owns and is very proud of,” she said. One of her recent classes spent three and one-half days outside of San Diego at the Barona Cultural Center and Museum with the Kumeyaay Nation.

Cheyenne Caraway learning traditional basket weaving “We brought back baskets that the students chose out of a larger number”  so they could study condition issues and technical questions that are needed to understand them. The baskets are all a bit soiled because the collectors who owned them probably kept them outside of any enclosure, Pearlstein added. “The students are now doing testing and examination, and they are going to write proposals for the treatment of these baskets that will be read by the tribal council,” she explained. “So you have to consider closely and carefully what the tribe has said is important about the baskets. But in your writing of the proposal, you have to make sure that you are not relying on any jargon because you are speaking to people who work in a different arena than you. And those are all really, really important things to learn.”

A major step in helping to expand inclusivity was the 2022 appointment of Anya Dani as Director of Community Engagement and Inclusive Practice/Lecturer. Dani described part of her goal as “to incorporate social responsibility” into her work and “strive to end systemic racism in the cultural heritage conservation field.” She hopes these efforts “will aid in the preservation of African American material culture.” Her position also includes advocating for social justice in cultural heritage and expanding African American representation in the field of conservation, according to Wharton.


Program values

 When the program changed its name in 2020, faculty, staff, and students also redrafted its mission statement. They adopted three values associated with mission: sustainability; community engagement; and diversity, equity, and inclusion. “We are very serious about these values. They drive everything we do, and we incorporate them onto our teaching,” Wharton explained.

In terms of sustainability, he added that they are referring to not only environmental sustainability, but also cultural and economic sustainability. For example they are going through a process of “greening” the conservation lab, “which means thinking very carefully about the solvents we use; how we dispose of the solvents; and making an effort to replace them with more sustainable alternatives,” he added. 

“We also made our program more inclusive by changing our admissions criteria,” he continued. “Instead of requiring an internship at a museum, we now say you need to have experience related to cultural heritage conservation,” Wharton explained.

“Our stated values guide us in teaching and research, in our selection of students, and in student research projects,” according to Wharton. They are “reshaping who comes to our program, what they learn, and the research they do,” Wharton added.


Future steps for the program

The program only accepts students every other year with a two-year sequence of courses. The third year, students have an internship placement. The Ph.D. program was launched in 2019, and at present, up to six M.A. students and up to three Ph.D. students are admitted every other year. 

Financial considerations limit the size of the program, as “we can only afford so many students with our endowments and university support,” Wharton explained. “We have endowments from Getty Foundation and from Mellon Foundation,” as well as from individuals and private foundations such as Jeffrey P. Cunard and the Kahn Foundation, he continued. So he also spends a lot of his time fundraising. “One of my primary fundraising concerns right now is to set up an endowment for the Ph.D. students in the same way we have for the M.A. students,” Wharton noted. “We receive gifts from alumni and friends of the program, such as a recent gift from program alumna Casey Mallinckrodt and UCLA alumna Andrea Straus to support student research. Support from UCLA alumna Margaret Arvey allowed us to make several student-featured videos that are now on our website,” he added.

“The program is now well-established and is a tremendous asset to the wider Los Angeles community. It is most gratifying to have been there at the start and to have succeeded in getting the program onto a secure footing for the future,” Scott noted. “All of our students came well-prepared for the UCLA/Getty graduate program; all of them have had the opportunity to participate in excellent summer internships; and many of them now occupy positions in conservation across the U.S. and abroad,” he concluded.

Pearlstein explained that “we have a number of international Ph.D. students, and there are students who want to work for their own cultural ministries... some may go on to teaching in local universities or even become the head of a conservation unit in a museum or in a regional center, starting from the ground up,” she added. 

As for the future, Pearlstein would like to see further integration of the Conservation graduate program with other units on campus. “There are so many terrific collaborators across campus, and we’ve been able to build some alliances, but it would be great if we could do even more,” she added.

“There’s vast employment for conservators all over the country and all over the world,” she noted. For example, “our students are at the National Museum of the American Indian and elsewhere at the Smithsonian, the Penn Museum at the University of Pennsylvania, and working for private institutions and institutional clients in Washington, DC and Los Angeles,” she continued. “In fact, the lead conservator at the Autry is one of our alums and the lead conservator at the Fowler Museum here at UCLA is also one of our alums.”                                          


Figure 1. First class of students taking a workshop taught by Mary Lou Florian on the identification of plant materials in the newly constructed research and training labs at the Getty Villa. Credit: Vanessa Muros.

Figure 2. Ronel Namde teaching paper conservation to participants of the 2023 Mellon Opportunity for Diversity in Conservation Workshop in the Getty Villa research and training laboratories. Credit: UCLA/Getty Conservation Program.

Figure 3. Student Cheyenne Caraway learning traditional basket weaving techniques from Eva Salazar at the Barona Cultural Center and Museum in October 2023. Credit: Ellen Pearlstein. 

Published on January 17, 2024.