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Preserving Our Past: Sixty Years of Winterthur Graduate Programs


The local arts and culture scene surely knows what it owes to Henry Francis du Pont in the preservation of important artifacts of American material culture. What it may not know is what it owes to him in the areas of the study and conservation of that culture.

A current exhibition at Winterthur, through June 16, explores this legacy as the American Material Culture program celebrates its 60th anniversary. [quote]

Back in 1949 Henry du Pont hired Charles Montgomery, then a recent Harvard graduate, to catalog his collection. During the course of this work, Montgomery came to du Pont and said that a graduate program to teach both what comprises American material culture and how to care for it and art in general was needed. Brock Jobe, Professor of American Decorative Arts and the curator for the anniversary exhibition, explains that du Pont always loved a project, and so the establishment of a master’s program in American Material Culture became his project for the early 1950s.

Talks began with both the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Delaware about establishing such a program. In 1952 the program with the University of Delaware began with the acceptance of five students, four of whom graduated two years later with a master’s degree in American Material Culture.

American material culture is comprised of objects like furniture, glass, ceramics, silver, metalwork, textiles, and needlework, and paintings and prints. In short, any material object that accurately reflects the culture from which it derives. The Winterthur collection, initially put together by du Pont and added to by donations, bequests and acquisitions, is considered one of the best in existence.

An example of an outstanding donation would be the recently acquired collection of soup tureens given by the Campbell Soup company. In addition to the objects themselves, there is a library of books, manuscripts, and texts that support the collection and its care. Winterthur is, therefore, a logical place to study the subject and acquire the knowledge necessary to work in the field.

Jobe says the alliance with a university was necessary because Winterthur is not a degree-granting institution. Du Pont also endowed a professorship at the University of Delaware in Fine Arts to bolster the alliance. So successful has the collaboration been between the two institutions that the university now has an undergraduate program in art conservation as well as the master’s program in American material culture and another in art conservation.

Lois Price, Director of Conservation at Winterthur, says, “A seamless collaboration over many years has resulted in the success of these programs.”

The success of the initial AMC program led the staff at Winterthur to take the next logical step, which was to institute a program in art conservation.

A degree from this program, begun in 1971, takes three years. The student takes academic courses for two years, working in the lab or studio, and then spends a year as an intern/apprentice somewhere like New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Plimouth Plantation in Massachusetts, or the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. These internships, required as part of the degree, often lead to full-time jobs in the student’s chosen profession.

Julie Lawson, conservator with the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, has a master’s degree in Arts Conservation from the program. “It’s very difficult to get into but I made it.” Her undergraduate degree is from Moore College of Art in Philadelphia.  “I only applied to the Winterthur program because it was local and I hoped to stay in the area,” Lawson says.

When asked about the program she laughs and says, “It’s incredibly intense. You have these all-day seminars in which an expert comes in and tells you his entire career in conservation and you’re just exhausted at the end.”  She adds, “It gives you a very good grounding in a wide variety of disciplines, which is invaluable.”

Her apprenticeship at the U. Penn museum, where she worked on copper alloy objects from the city of Ur in Mesopotamia (Iraq), resulted in her being hired. She is now working on some three- dimensional copper alloy objects and says the best thing about her museum’s collection is how well-provenanced it is. That is, all the objects have a meticulous record of where they were found, when they were found, who found them, and in what condition.

When asked about the qualifications needed to be accepted into either program, Professor Jobe describes the typical student for the materials culture program as someone “who is at least a year or two past their bachelor’s degree in a related field with sufficient academic standing.”

Those interested in art conservation are usually already working in the field, most often with a bachelor’s degree in a related discipline. More recently, students coming from Delaware’s undergraduate program can move directly into the master’s program if they qualify.

Winterthur bills itself as “Museum, Garden & Library,” and the creation of the library was another of du Pont’s projects. Frank Summer, a staff member, felt that in order for the grad programs to succeed, a reference library was necessary. So he and du Pont began to buy books. But not just any books. Books like Thomas Chippendale’s first book of furniture designs, among many others, everything from medieval manuscripts to the latest scholarly works on furniture, glass, ceramics, silver–anything that pertained to material culture and its preservation as well as books that were themselves artifacts.

The collection now includes more than 110,000 photographs of decorative arts–objects made and used in America prior to 1920 and now located in public and private collections throughout the United States and England. These photographs document the work of individual craftsmen, workshops, and manufacturers. Indexes in the collection provide basic biographical and bibliographical information on craft workers compiled from newspaper advertisements, city directories, and major secondary sources. There are even photographs of gravestones in the collection.

The Printed Book and Periodical Collection contains more than 100,000 volumes shelved adjacent to the main reading room and about 20,000 rare American and European books and manuscripts in closed stacks. The collection focuses on the documentation of American household goods and their use, decorative arts and design, and the material culture of everyday life in America from the 17th through the early 20th centuries. This resource has gained an international reputation.

The laboratories and workshops dedicated to the conservation of everything from paintings to furniture to buildings are a suitable match for the library as a resource and a conservator of the most important pieces of our past. There are labs devoted to caring for paintings, paper, textiles, objects (metals, ceramics, glass, and organic materials), furniture, books, and library materials.

The scientific lab has all the latest equipment any researcher or conservator could ask for: mass spectrometers, an electron microscope with energy dispersive x-ray spectroscopy, and a liquid chromatograph-mass spectrometer, for example.

To understand the finish (read paint) history of a Windsor settee in the collection, the staff took a tiny sample with a scalpel blade. The sample was approximately one milligram, about the size of the period at the end of this sentence. It was embedded in a clear, polyester resin material which was cut and polished. A cross section of it was viewed under the electron microscope. The staff was able to determine the various layers of paint on the settee, and a molecular analysis even told them the pigments used in the various layers of paint.

Such is Winterthur’s reputation and standing that its assistance has been sought in the preservation, conservation, and restoration of antiquities from other countries and cultures.

Lois Price serves on the board of the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage, dedicated to preserving what is left of its heritage in the “cradle of civilization.” To quote from the website: IICAH, “a collaboration between the SBAH, Kurdistan Regional Government, U.S. Embassy Baghdad, the U.S. Department of State, Winterthur Museum, University of Delaware, Walters Art Museum, Getty Conservation Institute, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Arizona–is training Iraq’s museum and heritage professionals in the preservation and conservation of their national treasures, ranging from Babylonian archeological sites to exquisite ivory figures from Nimrud and golden jewelry from Ur.”

This is a pretty amazing participation for the little museum that could. An anniversary celebration is certainly warranted by programs that have accomplished so much. Don’t miss seeing how they do it.

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