From STEM to Art History: Experiencing a Career in the Museum Conservation Field

In summer 2021, when Winston Kam, a rising senior at the Case Western Reserve University, applied for the position of Conservation Frame Intern at the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) through Studio Institute’s Arts Intern program, he had no prior experience in frame conservation and restoration. Although he’s always been interested in Art History, he’s not a painter or a studio artist. “Art History,” he says, “teaches you why the world is the way it is and one’s place in society.”

Conservation Frame Technician David Piurek working with Arts Intern Winston Kam
(photo: courtesy of Cleveland Museum of Art).

What Winston did have was a background in materials; in high school, he studied robotics and worked with tools in the woodworking shop. His initial major at Case Western was Materials Science and Engineering. The Conservation Frame internship at the CMA involved gaining knowledge and understanding of the materials and techniques used in framing and developing basic gilding skills to create gilded replacement frame liners for paintings in the museum’s collection.

Throughout the internship, Winston worked closely with his supervisor, David Piurek, the Conservation Frame Technician, to learn how to prepare works of art for loan, which included glazing, inserting backings and hardware, and other tasks. Winston was also responsible for taking notes in a daily journal, creating photo documentation, and occasionally contributing to the CMA’s blog and social media.

In addition to gaining insights into the conservation world and learning about the unique challenges and creative solutions required in preserving and displaying historic works of art, Winston was able to spend time with conservators and technicians in the other labs.

“What’s great is that the Conservation Lab occupies its own space upstairs at the CMA. The rooms are arranged in a u-shape that houses the staff from various departments: paper technicians, who mount prints and drawings; painting technicians, who frame the paintings; and objects conservators, who deal with everything 3D, from teacups to giant sculptures, as well as other conservator labs. The layout is conducive to collaboration and exchange. People come in and out to chat or offer advice. (Take a peek behind the scenes at some of the important work being done by the museum’s conservators and technicians in the conservation labs.)

“Framed” in the Conservation Lab (photo: courtesy of Cleveland Museum of Art).

Winston was fortunate to have a second internship opportunity at CMA during the current academic year. In the past, Arts Intern has offered only summer internships. However, in 2020, realizing the financial impact of Covid-19 on both students and cultural institutions, Studio Institute expanded the program into the academic year. This year, we were able to ensure our continued support for college students, offering internships that took place from Fall 2021 through Spring 2022.

During the current internship, Winston continued working in the Conservation Lab, but his focus was the restoration of a French Rococo Louis XV gilt frame that features a profusion of decorative elements. Under Dave’s guidance, he learned “inpainting” techniques as applied to frames: how to consolidate damaged, deteriorated, or missing layers, filling in holes and gaps with a type of putty, molding it to specific shapes as needed, and adding gold leaf to match surrounding materials.

François Boucher’s Music and Dance, resplendent in its newly restored frame, reclaims its space in the French gallery (photo: courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art).

Asked to comment on some of the skills he honed or acquired during the internships in addition to the technical aspects, he explains, “I would say that I’ve expanded my visual vocabulary and learned some of the professional language used in the documentation of artifacts. Working in the lab has also improved my communication skills. I’ve had the opportunity to meet and speak with distinguished museum staff, such as Sarah Scaturro [Cleveland Museum of Art, Eric and Jane Nord Chief Conservator], who provided a virtual tour of the Conservation Lab for an Arts Intern event last summer, as well as other specialists and experts in the conservation field, including visiting scholars and researchers.

When asked how mentoring from the CMA staff has made a difference in his approach to work and what he was able to accomplish during the two internships, Winston says that working in the lab four days a week last summer allowed him time to get to know Dave, whom he described as “an incredible mentor and teacher. Dave carries with him a veritable ‘mental rolodex’ of conservation expertise.

When I started, I didn’t know the difference between a Louis XV frame and a Dutch frame from the same period.” (Hint: French frames are embellished with exuberant forms and elaborate gilding effects. Eighteenth century Dutch frames often used ebony or—due to its excessive cost—an ebonizing painting process to create a rich umber-black tone.)

In addition to the opportunity to work with and learn from experts in the field, one of the benefits of the Arts Intern program is the educational programming component. During the summer internships, one day per week is allotted to special events, such as tours and panels at other cultural institutions. Due to the pandemic, much of this programming was restricted to Zoom; however, that has also made it possible for students to participate in events that feature specialists from host organizations across the country. Winston recalls being fascinated by a talk from a curator at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, who spoke about the logistical challenges presented by having to move a colossal Olmec head within the confines of the museum space.                

When asked to describe aspects of the CMA internship that stood out for him, Winston says, “It has to be meeting and working with the Conservation staff. What a great cohort! They’re all so down-to-earth and welcoming. I also liked being able to interact with visiting scholars and other experts. They included me in discussions; I was able to participate and be exposed to what’s possible out there.”

Looking ahead to Arts Intern in Summer 2022, we asked Winston what he would advise students who are looking for summer employment. “Many students wouldn’t consider museum work [as a career path]. I never thought about the conservation field as a possibility. The CMA internship was my first exposure. My advice for other students is to diversify your experience to see what’s out there.”

As for Winston’s future plans, for now he’s focused on finishing his degree. Because he switched majors from STEM to liberal arts, he’ll be extending his studies for an additional year. After that, who knows? He says he’s always wanted to be a teacher. We look forward to keeping apprised of his progress and know that he’ll be successful in whatever field he chooses.

Learn more about the Arts Intern program.