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History with a View


By Anne Burke

Published Apr 1, 2006 12:00 AM

Interested in checking out the Getty Villa? Get in line. The spectacular museum is booked solid through most of the summer. But a clever group of UCLA students has managed to get in through the back door.

The Getty Villa — an educational center as well as a museum — is home to the UCLA/Getty Master's Program on the Conservation of Ethnographic and Archaeological Materials. This mouthful of a program launched last fall at the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA and relocated to the sumptuous seaside villa in January, just days before its public reopening.

While visitors stroll past the Doric columns and admire Greek and Roman antiquities, the UCLA students — all six of them — are ensconced in a two-story building behind the villa's museum spaces, learning how to conserve art and cultural pieces. Aside from the picturesque setting, the Getty has provided for students a top-of-the-line laboratory with gleaming bench microscopes and north-facing windows coveted by anyone who does fine-detail repair work. Here, students learn the nuts and bolts of conservation by working on authentic pieces from the past.

The three-year UCLA/Getty program fills a big void on the West Coast. Until now, SUNY-Buffalo, the University of Delaware and NYU were the only schools training the conservators of the future. It's little wonder such programs are so rare. They're hugely expensive and produce only a small crop of graduates for a field that is itself "very small and specialized," says UCLA Professor David Scott, the program's chair.

Digging It

Want to know more about archaeology? Check out, a site designed for teachers that makes the art of exploring antiquity accessible to everyone. And log on to for all things Getty.

The group will also be able to study alongside Getty scholars at the villa's research library and have access to the 800,000 volumes at the Getty Library in Brentwood. "They're really quite spoiled," muses Scott, who headed the Getty Conservation Institute's Museum Services Research Laboratory from 1987 to 2003. In addition, grad students got to work on actual antiquities for their first challenge: The UCLA Fowler Museum is supporting the conservation degree by providing a sampling of authentic art and artifacts for study. Scott presented the six with an assortment of pre-Columbian ceramics on loan from the Fowler, which were marred by gaping holes and meandering cracks that had occurred long before their acquisition by the museum. One vessel had shattered into a dozen pieces and was then reassembled with an adhesive whose milky residue was still evident. Student Steven Pickman, wearing protective eyewear and surgical gloves, examined the piece at eye level. His assignment was to restore the object to displayable form without ruining the original aesthetic.

The piece dates to around A.D. 1300 and was unearthed in Peru, but Pickman was curious to know more. As he worked on the piece, he hoped it would reveal some of the secrets of its past. "One of the things we like about this program is that each object is a new mystery," Pickman says. "It keeps you interested."



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