Introducing the First Conservation PhD Candidates: Moupi Mukho-padhyay

MoupiLeft-brained or right-brained? No need to favor one over the other if you find a field that challenges both. Using her engineering background and love of arts and humanities, Moupi Mukhopadhyay discovered that working in Conservation offered her an opportunity to combine her diverse interests and challenge the two sides of her brain. Following are excerpts from a recent interview with the current PhD candidate in the Conservation of Material Culture offered by the Conservation of Archaeological and Ethnographic Materials Interdepartmental Degree Program at UCLA.

Roz Salzman:  You have an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering, an MS in Materials Science and Engineering, another master’s in Buddhist Art History and Conservation, and are on your way to a PhD in Conservation.  How did your background in engineering lead to your Conservation studies?

Moupi Mukhopadhyay:  When I was looking at graduate programs, I found the UCLA Materials Science and Engineering Program. While I was pursuing that degree, I joined the Archaeomaterials Group and developed an interest in the analytical methods used in the conservation of archaeological and ethnographic materials. In this group, students look into existing research, as well as doing their own research on analyzing materials from archaeological finds. I had always been interested in the arts and humanities, even though my background was in engineering. So I thought it would be a great opportunity to stimulate both my interests. I was encouraged by Prof. Ionna Kakoulli, who is a founder of the group and teaches in the Materials Science and Engineering program.  (The Archaeomaterials Group is a joint venture between the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, established to assist in archaeological research of anthropological significance, to promote innovative research in ancient materials and technologies, and to develop synergistic activities and sharing of knowledge among universities and museums.)

RS:  Where did the archaeological finds you worked on come from?

MM:  A lot of them were from the collection at the Getty Villa that UCLA students have available to study, as well as from the Fowler Museum.  Other objects came from Prof. Kakoulli’s consulting work. As to their origins, sometimes you know where they came from, and sometimes they are objects that have been in a dusty old cabinet for 200 years with an unknown history.

RS:  What were you looking for?

MM:  How it was made; how it has deteriorated. You look at the features with expectations of certain things, and if you see something that’s slightly off or different, you investigate it. We listed those anomalies. We even tried to give some explanations and proposed different theories to answer those questions.

RS:  So during this time with the Archaeomaterials Group, you started thinking about changing your focus to Conservation?

MM:  The very first class I took for my MS was Prof. Kakoulli’s class on the documentation and imaging of archaeological materials. It absolutely fascinated me. It was a course that was taught for the Conservation students, but we could also take it. Before that, I didn’t even know about the term “conservation”. I found out that the Conservation courses could be taken by other students, so I started taking more and more of these classes. I became really familiar with the many discussions happening in Conservation and grew close to the Conservation cohort. It really appealed to me because even though I was doing engineering before, some part of my heart always craved more arts or humanities. It felt good studying this; the Conservation courses worked both sides of my brain.

RS:  After you completed your MS degree, you pursued a second master’s degree in Buddhist Art History and Conservation? How did that come about?

MM:  By this time, I knew I was interested in pursuing Conservation, and I knew that world was going to be so much different than what I was used to before. The UCLA PhD program in Conservation had not been finalized, so in the meantime I decided to get a master’s at the Courtauld Institute of Art at the University of London, a center for the study of art history, conservation, and curating. There I learned about conservation principles and used some analytical techniques in which I had some background from my UCLA degree. We were exposed to many conservation centers and museums across the UK, Paris, China, and India. We saw the conservation departments of so many museums.

RS:  Did you get any professional experience during this time?

MM: During the summers of 2018 and 2019, I volunteered with freelance conservator Dana Goodburn-Brown who has many amazing projects. She also came into conservation with a degree in material science, so we had lots in common. And she had her own lab. She worked on projects in Kent, UK, where archaeological excavation was taking place, and conservators had to be on the scene to see if anything was particularly vulnerable to damage and to prevent it. I just immersed  myself in her world for a couple of months each year, and I  had a lot of opportunities to do many things. I was able to work in a couple of galleries in the UK, and she also took me to the UAE for my first onsite project at a Nestorian church on an island off the coast of Abu Dhabi. It was my first real exposure to a professional conservator.

RS:  How did you make your connection with her?

MM:  Through LinkedIn. She had a really impressive resume, has won many awards, including the IIC Keck award, and built this cultural heritage initiative in a shopping mall in Sittingbourne, Kent to integrate the public as much as possible into conservation. It is a regular, active mall, and her “shop” is one of the units. Basically, people come into the mall to buy clothes or ice cream and they see her storefront with a big display of an Egyptian mummy, a case of Anglo-Saxon glass beads, pottery sherds, etc. Then they see Dana working on a low-risk object that was recently excavated, and that piques the interest of the shopper to go into the store to see what it’s all about. They get an introduction to conservation and have discussions about cultural heritage. People who have volunteered there have gone on to become conservators themselves, and there’s even someone who is now doing forensics. By introducing conservation into an active public space, she is bringing the discipline to light, getting people excited about the heritage in their backyards, and basically removing the shroud of mystery around excavated heritage. I think it is a wonderful project.

RS:  When you completed your degree in the UK, you came back to UCLA to join the PhD program in Conservation. During this past year, when you haven’t been able to travel, what have you been working on?

MM:  Mostly, I concentrated on my PhD qualifying exams. I was basically the first one in our group to go through all of these exams. Now I get to focus on my research about the conservation of wall paintings in Kerala (South India). These paintings are found in many temples across the state and, while the earliest date back to the 7th century CE, with a strong painting tradition that spans the 12th to 19th centuries CE, there was also a revival of the tradition in the 10th century, which continues to this day. These are active sites, with worshippers in them every day.  Sometimes, the local community will feel that because the structure is crumbling, it is necessary to bring it down and build a new one. But then the wall paintings get destroyed in the process. So I am looking for ways to conserve these paintings.

RS:  Have any previous conservation efforts been made in this area?

MM:  There have been a few efforts in some places, but just not enough funding to do them all. I also would like to try to get as much information from these paintings as possible if we cannot save them. But my main mission is to use the information to convince authorities or other stakeholders that they need to be preserved. I want to do a lot of technical analysis, trying to see if I can get more images using multispectral and hyperspectral imaging; exercise my scientific half. With Prof. Wharton’s help, I am also trying to find out more about the community involved in the creation and maintenance of these paintings. Knowing the values they associate with the paintings is really important to understanding the heart of what needs to be conserved and for whom. Sometimes conservation can actually mean passing along the art through training new artists, not just keeping the material frozen in place. I hope to look into existing systems surrounding the paintings to better understand what actions can have the greatest impact in terms of conserving those paintings.

RS:  Once you can travel to India, what will you do first?

MM:  My whole family is there, and there definitely has been some impact from COVID. I will definitely visit them. For my project, I am going to concentrate on developing plans, getting in touch with all the stakeholders, and building relationships with them. But trying to accomplish all this remotely is difficult; it will be much easier once I am there. After this is done, I can start using analytical techniques on the wall paintings.

RS: Once you complete your PhD, what would you like to do?

MM:  I really want to continue working with the Kerala murals. Of course, it would also be nice to have a little stability and work as a museum scientist. But the idea would be to use the research I did for my PhD and help provide assistance tp help preserve the wall paintings.

RS:  In addition to all your educational research and projects, are there any outside activities you enjoy?

MM:  I love to sing. My childhood was steeped in the arts. My mother is a singer, and since my earliest days, singing was my go-to activity for self-expression. I also love to draw and paint. While I used to do watercolors and pen sketches, I have recently been using acrylic-based paints. And as much as I love to read for pleasure, I have always wanted to write stories, as well. I don’t have the time to do much non-academic writing, but I have written a couple of short stories for online magazines.

RS:  On another more personal note, how do we pronounce Moupi correctly?

MM: My friends call me “Moppy,” and that is close enough.