When Elizabeth Salmon graduated with an undergraduate degree in anthropology and Asian studies from Vassar, she knew she wanted to do something “hands-on,” and her awareness of the field of conservation made her think that it would be a great fit. Rather than immediately jumping into advanced education in conservation, she started a series of internships and research jobs that continued to reinforce her desire to advocate for conservation. This extensive “hands-on” background eventually led to her admission to the first cohort of PhD students in the Conservation of Material Culture offered by the Conservation of Archaeological and Ethnographic Materials Interdepartmental Degree Program (IDP) at UCLA. Salmon, who is the only member of the inaugural program without a prior master’s degree, credits her vast pre-program experience as demonstrating her knowledge and devotion to the field. Following are excerpts from a recent interview with Salmon.
Roz Salzman: Your first job after graduation was an internship with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art, the Freer Gallery of Art/Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. What was your experience there like?
Elizabeth Salmon: I actually worked in the Scholarly Programs and Publications Department, but the conservators there were so welcoming. I just thought it was wonderful and fascinating. I had worked in India while getting my undergraduate degree, and they were working on Indian collections at that museum. That work led to an opportunity to go back to India, where I got a chance to learn about wall painting conservation and get some practical experience. I participated in several internships and different experiences in conservation, most of it in India.
RS: Your bio shows that in India you studied Hindi in Jaipur, worked at the Leon Levy Foundation Centre for Conservation in Nagaur and the Mehrangarth Museum in Jodhpur, and were a Language Fellow at the American Institute of Indian Studies in Jaipur. What were some of your take-aways from this in-country work?
ES: I had such a great experience learning about conservation in India. Through those experiences, I always thought about what areas of conservation might benefit from further research. Part of my doctoral research will be looking at traditional ecological knowledge and drawing on this work in India to develop preventive care measures that are accessible, sustainable, and culturally relevant.
RS: You had been very active in conservation for several years, so why did you decide you wanted to pursue a PhD?
ES: When I came back to the U.S., I got a research position with the National Park Service at the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training. There, I got a chance to do a lot of research design. That’s when I started to consider doing a PhD instead of applying for the master’s program in conservation at UCLA, which is a fantastic program that I had always had my eye on. When I did that first internship at the Smithsonian, they mentioned to me that there’s not really a common PhD degree in conservation. Most of the people that are in decision-making positions at museums have PhDs in art history or other fields, and they don’t always have an ear toward conservation or a preference toward conservation. So I always had in mind that I would like to be in a position where I can advocate for and support the Conservation Department.
RS: What attracted you to the UCLA PhD program?
ES: I grew up in Southern California, and my family has been in San Diego for a long time, so a personal part of it was coming home. I also really admired the faculty at UCLA and appreciate that the program is designed to be community-oriented and focused on working with ethnographic materials. When they announced the PhD program at UCLA, I was already doing a research job and was enjoying it and finding it fulfilling. It was really exciting to be accepted into the first cohort and get to continue doing research.
RS: What are you focusing on in your research?
ES: There are different research thrusts that are part of the program, and one is preventive care of collections; mitigating any possible damage before it happens. Within that arena, I’m looking at pest management in the museum. I’m still focusing on India for the most part; on their traditional methods of pest management. These are techniques used in indigenous communities that actually have an historical cultural element to them and also have potential to be increasingly sustainable and accessible preventive care tools. This is based on something I experienced in my internship in India: the use of leaves from the neem tree, which are known to have pesticidal properties.
RS: Is the use of neem leaves something new?
ES: Neem has been used as a pest management tool in India for hundreds of years. There has actually been quite a bit of recent scientific research to understand the active mechanisms, and I encountered some museums there that were using dried neem leaves as preventive measures. I really wanted to document the way that they are using neem to prevent insect damage to collections and do some scientific research to understand how it can be used reliably to protect a museum collection. I hope that eventually this will also serve museums in remote areas that have difficulty accessing other kinds of pest management and possibly set an example for how we can incorporate other forms of traditional ecological knowledge into collections care.
RS: Are there lots of neem trees?
ES: They are really common in India, growing all over. They are also starting to be grown in other parts of the world that have the right climate; places in Africa and the Caribbean, for example. There are also quite a bit of pest management techniques that are used in Native American communities here in North America. Although India is a focus, I would also like to look at pest management strategies in Native America.
RS: Once you are able to travel again, what are your plans?
ES: I would love to go to maybe eight museums that are using traditional methods and document how they are using them, what kind of success they are having, what kind of bug issues they are trying to address, and then use that information to build the laboratory research I’m planning to do. I might have to do some of it virtually. I really want to get more experience working with ecology and integrated pest management in museums to better understand what the standard of practice is before I go and do research about new tools that can be added.
RS: When you are not exploring natural ways to eliminate pests in museum collections, what do you enjoy doing?
ES: I love doing ceramics; throwing on a pottery wheel. Bowls, vases, things like that. I find it relaxing, fun, and creative. And I love dogs. I really enjoy taking my dog out to the beach or just for a ride in the car.