One of the special features of a Decorative Arts Trust event—domestic or foreign—is the chance to learn from top experts in a variety of fields related to the decorative arts. While historically the Trust’s lectures and guides come from the curatorial end of the field, 2016 has seen new forays for the organization into the field of conservation. The expertise of these professionals is the flip side of the coin to curatorial knowledge: the physical and scientific evidence that can support historic research and, in many cases, reveal more information about an object’s history that escapes both the connoisseur’s eye and the historic record.
One of the sites for this month’s London-based extension of the fall Study Trip Abroad was a tour of the Victoria and Albert Museum, where we enjoyed a tour led in part by Senior Furniture Conservator Dana Melchar. An alumnus of the Winterthur-University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, her path to the V&A was unique. She is one of the few professionals from the field whose work has led to a permanent home in a new country and dual citizenship.
Conservation is actually Dana’s second career. Her undergraduate major in English initially brought her to a job in Manhattan for BusinessWeek Magazine. Finding that position unfulfilling, she turned to some of her happier memories spending time with her grandparents at their interior decorating and upholstery business in Newport, Rhode Island. Their connections to the antiques trade eventually led her to Winterthur’s conservation program, and she trained for two years at the North Bennet Street School in Boston, in addition to taking preparatory classes in chemistry, art history, and studio art, to meet the entry requirements.
Her formal introduction to the Victoria & Albert Museum’s conservation department came during her third year internship. At Winterthur, she focused on painted furniture, which gave her an entry into a wide variety of time periods and materials that she sought to capitalize on throughout her third year, which she divided between the V&A, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Colonial Williamsburg, treating everything from Asian lacquer to contemporary furniture. At the time, very few conservation programs in Europe offered the Master of Science degree that Winterthur does, which made her all the more attractive to the leadership at the V&A. When a job opening became available, her bosses there encouraged her to apply, and she got the job.
At the V&A she has developed a specialty in French furniture, but has treated a wide variety of items from the collection, including a painted suite of Thomas Chippendale bedroom furniture made for the English actor David Garrick. Much to Christian’s delight, a current project is preparing a chair from the restaurant of the ocean liner Queen Elizabeth 2 as a loan to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, for an upcoming exhibit on ocean liners.
Dana’s perspective enriched the Trust’s tour of the V&A, and we benefitted from her behind-the-scenes perspective. Trust members should look out for stateside opportunities to learn more about the fascinating field of art conservation, starting with our special one-day symposium “Latrobe and Philadelphia: The Waln House Furniture Revealed and Reconsidered” on November 4, 2016, which represents a partnership between curatorial and conservation colleagues at the Philadelphia Museum of Art!