For three weeks in April, we had an intern working with us in the Conservation Department, specifically, with me in the Artifact Lab. I hesitate to call her an intern because this “intern” is someone who has at least ten more years of experience than I do as a conservator. In fact, she was one of my first conservation internship supervisors – the first of many, as internships play a significant role in the education and training of professional conservators. Many conservation graduate programs require that applicants complete hundreds of internship hours in order to be considered for admission and it is not unusual for prospective candidates to apply with thousands of internship hours under their belts. Graduate training also includes extensive internship work, and many recent grads apply for post-graduate fellowships which provide yet another opportunity for early-career professional development.*
It was through my pursuit of a conservation internship that I met Emily Williams 15 years ago. I went to Williamsburg, Virginia, during the summer between my junior and senior year in college, and split my time between an archaeological field school and an internship with Emily in the archaeological conservation lab at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. This experience solidly turned me to the dark side, as we like to joke, on a path to become an archaeological conservator. That summer wasn’t my only experience working with Emily. I returned to her lab after graduating from the University of Delaware with an undergraduate degree in Art Conservation and found myself staying there for three years, during which she mentored me in the lab where I gained many skills in treating freshly excavated finds, and she encouraged me to give my first presentation at a professional conference, to publish my first paper, and to assist with a range of professional outreach activities, including workshops and the creation of an online resource for archaeologists.
I left Colonial Williamsburg in 2005 and went on to study conservation at the graduate level in the UCLA/Getty Master’s Program in the Conservation of Archaeological and Ethnographic Materials, but Emily has continued to be an important mentor for me. While the work that I’ve done since leaving her lab has been on very different types of collections, I continue to draw upon the lessons I learned from her as her intern many years ago. These lessons have not only been practical ones on how to treat objects and collections care, but on soft skills such as communication, the importance of developing relationships with volunteers, and the value of professional service, such as serving on committees.
This year Emily celebrated 20 years of employment at Colonial Williamsburg, and as a token of appreciation she received two extra weeks of vacation. Emily is a world traveler, both for work and pleasure, and I don’t think a year goes by without her going on a trip to Europe, or on an excavation in Kurdistan, or to a family reunion in Australia. Perhaps it’s because she is such a regular traveler that she chose to spend her two extra weeks of vacation (plus a third week) working with me in the Artifact Lab instead of taking an exotic trip somewhere – she can do that anytime. Or maybe it’s that, even after 20 years as a professional conservator, she continues to pursue opportunities to grow professionally, like working on ancient Egyptian organic artifacts in our lab (vastly different from the historic archaeological inorganic finds she usually works on in her lab), organizing conferences, or working on her Ph.D., which she expects to complete next year.
While she pitched coming to work with us for three weeks as a learning opportunity for her, I don’t think anyone benefited more than me (and our department). I should also mention that while Emily was here, in addition to the work she did in the lab, she gave a lecture in Conservation’s CAAM course “The Past Preserved: Conservation in Archaeology.” We were lucky to have her and I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to reconnect with her professionally like this. It was a really important reminder that mentors are so important at any stage of our careers, and that you never know how these relationships are going to evolve.
* For more information on conservation education and training, refer to this guide on the American Institute for Conservation (AIC) website.