Q&A with Emily B. Frank, objects and sculpture conservator.
What does your role as an objects and sculpture conservator entail?
There are a lot of ways to be a conservator, and my career is currently very multifaceted. I’m pursuing a PhD at New York University’s Institute for Study of the Ancient World, where my dissertation examines the way that Roman people and artists manipulated their materials and physically intervened in their objects, and how that’s linked to larger social values. I teach technical imaging and image-based documentation and analysis at NYU’s graduate Conservation Center. I’m also an intermittent conservator at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, where I do object treatment on a project-by-project basis. Additionally, I engage in private consulting, object treatment, imaging, and conservation management for contemporary artists, collectors, and institutions. Last summer, I worked on four archaeological projects in Italy, Turkey, and Crete, which involved conservation research, treatment of in situ finds and structures, supervising student conservators, and computational imaging.
These wide-ranging professional engagements put me in touch with contemporary art and design as well as archaeological material. I deal with such things as current plant-based design prototypes, large-scale Hellenistic stone monuments, multimedium sculpture that is still in process, and ceramic vessels spanning three millennia. I love working on diverse materials at both ends of the temporal spectrum, because they present a wide variety of problems, and I am constantly learning new things. I think this kind of flexibility in the way I employ my conservation training is part of how the field is evolving.
How do you think conservation is shifting?
There is more widespread acknowledgment that what it means to conserve something is context specific. Being a conservator is shifting away from a central idea of “fixing” toward the goal of guiding our material from the past into the future. The objects we treat were created and [went] through physical changes or “events.” At some point, depending on the context they’re in, someone will perceive them to be at risk of changing trajectory—materially or conceptually—in an unacceptable way. A conservator’s job is to help make sense of that moment: to determine the actual danger of the trajectory change (which may vary for different stakeholders), to think about how much we can or should intervene at that juncture, and to build documentation so that someone who checks in later can understand what decision-making framework was applied.
Perhaps more important, the field is facing a reckoning with the fact that conservation has historically privileged some material and modes of care over others. There is a real push to decenter Western methodologies of care and adopt global practices that value communities and sustainability.
As the field broadens, it requires cooperation among more disciplines. Conservators have long worked with art historians and scientists, but lately we’ve begun to push even further. For example, some of us are using techniques from data science to answer questions such as “how effective has this treatment method been in resolving this particular condition issue?” We’ve found that legacy treatment records enable us to build searchable data sets.
What are the biggest challenges you face in your career?
I fundamentally believe that collaboration yields the best work. Some of the major challenges in conservation are finding your collaborators, learning how to communicate with them, and developing ways to work efficiently across disciplines.
Do you have any advice for aspiring conservators?
Conservation requires a lot of time, work, and effort. But I wholeheartedly encourage you to pursue it. It’s an amazing field, well worth the many years of training. And based on my own experience, I advise you to find mentors who will guide you and support your success. This is an exciting time to enter the field—you can have real impact and help shift the way the discipline works.