Introducing the First Conservation Phd Candidates: Christian De Brer

Christian de Brer isn’t afraid to be one of the firsts. He was in the first cohort of students to receive MA degrees from the UCLA/Getty Interdepartmental Program in the Conservation of Archaeological and Ethnographic Materials, administered through the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology. With that degree and his practical experience, he eventually became Director of Conservation at the Fowler Museum of UCLA. For many conservators, that would be a career goal. But de Brer wants to do more and is now part of the inaugural program offering a PhD in the Conservation of Material Culture.

Roz Salzman: How did you begin your career in conservation?

Christian de Brer: After getting my BFA in fine arts here at UCLA, I did some art work and design work for a while. Then I found out about conservation, and that was right at the time when the MA program was starting here.

RS: So you are a trailblazer?

CdB: Actually, I think of myself as being a guinea pig. It seems they are always working out the kinks with me. But it’s kind of fun to be part of the groundbreaking. I was in that first group that got degrees in 2008. I had stuck around UCLA and had worked at the Fowler Museum as an intern. I worked as a research assistant with David Scott,  then-chair and founding director of the UCLA/Getty Conservation Program. After that, I went into the MA program.

RS: And after you received your MA degree, what happened?

CdB: I did an internship at the Getty Conservation Institute, working on mosaics. I ended up working primarily in Tunisia with the mosaics, and that expanded into the eastern and northern Mediterranean areas. I also did some contract work at the Getty. The Mosaics in Situ project was about training locals in the care of their history and management and maintenance of sites with Roman mosaics.

RS: How did you connect with the Fowler?

CdB: I got a position as the assistant conservator at the Fowler around 2009 and have been here ever since. My boss eventually retired, and in 2011, I was promoted to Director of Conservation.

RS: What made you decide that you wanted to get a PhD when you are already so successful?

CdB: I was always hoping to go back to get a PhD because I am very interested in getting further into teaching. I’ve done a few lectures here and there with the UCLA/Getty program. I’ve taught a course on mosaic conservation and on wall painting conservation. That was wonderful. And there’s always been a teaching component in the museum. But we don’t have a huge amount of resources, and I’ve been fortunate on that front to be able to make things happen. I just always wanted to get more into that aspect of it.  If I wanted to pursue more teaching, I knew I had to get a PhD. I also want to get further into some real in-depth research, and the PhD program here allows me to do that. Before this, unfortunately, the choices of institutions awarding a PhD were very limited, and I wasn’t prepared to quit and move somewhere else. There are only four conservation programs in the U.S., and the others are all back East. I’ve got three young children and a family to consider. Because of my connection to UCLA and the work that I had done with the master’s program, I knew that the PhD program had been in the works here for awhile. So I was just waiting for the time when it actually became official.

RS: What kind of research are you working on for the PhD program?

CdB: I’m going to work on West Mexican ceramics that were made about 300 BCE-300 CE. I’ll also be looking at some newer ceramics that popped up in the post-classic time periods in that same area. There’s a sizable collection of that material at UCLA that was excavated by the late Clem Meighan. When I go down to Mexico and work at the institutions that have collections of these materials, it is like another avenue of collaboration. I am trying to get more of a technical understanding of the ceramics in order to help to repair and preserve them. You have to understand how something has been made; what’s been done to it in the past; what materials were used. I am also looking at archaeological sites where these ceramics were discovered, trying to understand their context a bit better. Once they are in the museums, the context can be easily lost. So I’m working with members of the Mexican institutions to forge long-term collaborations that might once have existed, but have long been lost. Although I didn’t get down to Mexico last summer, hopefully I will this year. Otherwise, I will be significantly delayed in getting the research from those collections.

I’m also looking at collections in Southern California institutions because there’s a huge amount here; trying to understand what has been done to the ceramics after they were brought into the U.S.; how they have been altered for display; and what may be a more appropriate method of display. What I learn can then be shared with the Mexican institutions, giving them data and information on pieces they may not even know existed. It should also help in understanding if it is possible to make some repatriation efforts.

RS: How does the Fowler look at your ongoing studies?

CdB: I’ve taken some courses throughout my career here. But for the last two years or so, I’ve been at 70% time at the Fowler, so I can do some of the coursework, along with research on the collections we discussed. Staff at the Fowler have been really flexible, which has been great. They’ve seen the value in it as well.

RS: So, once again, you are one of the first people to enter a new program. How is it going so far?

CdB: It is great to see how it has progressed. I know that Prof. Ioanna Kakoulli and Dr. Christian Fischer had started the ball rolling on the program several years ago, and Prof. Kakoulli really pushed it through with a few bureaucratic delays along the way. Glenn Wharton has been another invaluable addition to the program.  We meet regularly to share ideas, but it’s been really good so far.  There are still kinks to work out, but there’s lots of progress that has been made.

RS: Do you have time for any interests outside of work and study?

CdB: I don’t have any free time now, but I love hiking and getting into the mountains; camping and, of course, traveling. But because of the pandemic, the kids have been home, and we’ve been doing homeschooling, so a lot of work has gone into that, too. However, when I am in the field, I try to take them with me. They can come along and run around the country. When I did field work in Peru, they learned a lot. It’s just an incredible way to learn for them.