Leah Palmer – Postgraduate Associate, Yale IPCH Technical Studies Lab


Leah Palmer - Postgraduate Associate, Yale IPCH Technical Studies Lab

Leah graduated from the University of Florida in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in Art History, minoring in Linguistics and Arabic. She is pursuing a career in Art Conservation with a prospective specialization in textiles. After working as a conservation intern for the National Park Service and the Field Museum, Leah is now working as a post-graduate associate in IPCH’s Technical Studies Lab, primarily focusing on pigment analysis using Macro-X-Ray Fluorescence and other imaging techniques. She hopes to begin a master’s program in art conservation in the Fall of 2023.

Hi Leah! Thank you so much for chatting with us, we are excited! To get us started, we are curious to know more about your upbringing. Where are you from and what are the arts communities like there? 

I am from a small town outside of Gainesville, FL called Newberry! I grew up on a blueberry farm there, and I feel like my experience making art as a child was amplified by constantly being in the vibrant and ever-changing nature of a farm! 

I went to undergrad at the University of Florida, where I interned at the Harn Museum of Art; I loved being a part of the arts community in Gainesville. The student body at UF was so diverse, creative, and passionate, and there were constantly student exhibitions and popup art sales going on! I felt like everyone wanted to support and encourage the art being created around us. 

We want to know a little more about yourself, when did you realize you wanted to pursue a career in this industry?

As a child, I was always so intrigued by the materiality of things: I remember asking for a microscope set at the age of 6, and I loved analyzing minerals, gemstones, plant fibers and other things with it! I also enjoyed making from a very early age. I loved creating things, working with my hands. I wasn’t very focused on creating art that made a statement, though; I more so enjoyed engaging with pre-existing artworks by making reproductions or studies of them. 

I didn’t quite know how all of these instincts could coalesce into a single career until senior year of high school, when I read a book about art conservation! I learned that conservation involved scientific analysis, fine hand skills, and a deep appreciation for and knowledge of art– and I was hooked. 

What was your first job? What is an important lesson from it that has carried with you? 

In 2018, I began working at the University of Florida’s Books and Paper Conservation and Preservation Lab; this was my first conservation experience, and it was both challenging and exciting; it was there that I started to understand the very diverse responsibilities of a conservator: I participated in hands-on treatment (re-housing pamphlets in UF’s collection), professional development (learning how to make paper or glue), scientific research (investigating why tape works and how it harms objects), and record keeping (taking treatment notes in our database). And since then, I’ve only grown in my understanding of these various responsibilities!

You are a Postgraduate Associate at the Technical Studies Lab at Yale University! Tell us more about your position and what a standard day looks like for you.

This position is SO amazing because each day looks almost completely different from the next! This past week, I’ve used Raman spectroscopy to analyze trace pigments on ancient Assyrian reliefs, made egg tempera paint for the class I’m TAing for at Yale, conducted a social media campaign highlighting the female scientists in my lab, and used lasers to gather data about birch furniture in Yale’s collection, among MANY other things! I’m privileged to have so much flexibility to learn from and work on a huge variety of projects. 

You have also worked as a conservation intern for The Field Museum in Chicago and the National Park Service.  What were your favorite parts of each experience? 

Those experiences were so educational and fulfilling! My time at the Field was marked by an increased awareness of the need for proper object storage; I spent 3 months there creating custom storage mounts for flexible textiles, a task which requires careful consideration of the needs of each individual object. I have a much greater appreciation for preventive conservation (object care that focuses on an object’s environment, rather than the object itself). 

My time at the Park Service taught me so much about the intricacies of each conservation specialization; while there, I worked mainly with textiles, but was able to complete treatments on paper, metal, wooden furniture, and organic objects, all of which have vastly different material properties– and vastly different treatment considerations! I enjoyed using unique sets of tools for each project- from eyelash-sized surgical needles on a textile treatment, to rough glass bristle brushes on a corroded metal stud.  

What has been your favorite conservation project so far? Why? 

I had the privilege of treating Abraham Lincoln’s assassination garments (trousers, vest, coat, and necktie) while working at the National Park Service! This project held so much cultural significance, and every day when I sat down at the bench, I would feel a wave of sobering responsibility wash over me. Every needle prick and every stitch had to be precise and perfect. This project pushed me to develop my skills so that I could do right by this historical garment! 

In addition to treating these garments, I created a reproduction shirt and necktie that will go on display with these garments in Ford’s Theater in Washington D.C. While this part of the project felt insignificant at the time, creating these reproductions empowered me to begin making my own clothes– and in the months since making those reproductions, I’ve made seven jackets and a blouse, with many more sewing projects on the horizon!

You are pursuing a specialization in Textile conservation – what drew you to working with textiles? 

I think that textiles are some of the most intimate objects that we as humans create. Every day, I wake up in a pile of blankets that I’ve chosen to sleep in; I then go to my closet and select a few articles of clothing that I’ve specifically bought for myself because I feel very me in them. Some of us have flags on our walls that represent a deep part of our identities- sexuality, nationality, university, maybe even a sports team. And on our wedding days, we carefully put on carefully-tailored dresses and suits that mark a significant change in our lives. Every culture uses textiles in a slightly different way- but in every culture, they are so meaning-laden. 

I love the idea that I could be a part of conserving these very special objects for future generations, making sure that our children and grandchildren understand a bit more about our time and the time that came before us. 

What does a good day off look like for you? What do you enjoy doing in your free time? 

Since I move around very frequently, I really enjoy engaging in hobbies that help me quickly connect me with people nearby- hobbies like Spikeball! I love getting out in the fresh air with friends and tossing around a ball for a bit! 

If you came to New Haven on any given Saturday morning, you’d most likely find me at Gather, a community coffee shop with extremely comfy couches! I’m usually reading 4 or 5 books at a time, so I spend about 4 hours every weekend at Gather, just reading and journaling. I find that spending so many hours introverting really helps me feel alive and vibrant when I’m extroverting! 

I also am a very big maker– I always have a project or commission going on! Right now, I’m working on a wedding painting for a friend, a frocket t-shirt embroidered with gemstones and minerals, a jacket made out of a quilt, and another jacket made out of thrifted corduroy pants and a New Yorker canvas tote bag! I’m so excited to finish all of those!

What are you most excited for this year in your career path or in the art world as a whole? 

This year, I applied to a master’s in art conservation, and I recently found out I got accepted to my dream school, the University of Delaware! I feel so blessed- it usually takes a few rounds of applications to get accepted, so I’m very thankful to be able to start my Masters program this fall!

As you know, Art Frankly is a community that cares about job transparency and supporting fellow art professionals. What is the best piece of advice you can give about working in the art world, or those interested in pursuing conservation? 

I think that conservation is one of the best-kept secret careers in the art world; it’s such a beautiful way to engage with art and cultural heritage, and I’m so excited to be a part of this field. However, there is such a high barrier to entry to becoming a conservator; one of these hurdles is the lack of funding for conservation internships. 

There has historically been an expectation that people preparing for conservation grad school should be willing to accept unpaid internships to gain required conservation experience. However, this continues the cycle of underpaying and undersupporting artists/art conservators; I’ve made a conscious decision to never apply to or accept unpaid conservation work. Instead, when I am not able to secure an internship, I prioritize taking paid work in a conservation-adjacent field so that I can continue my path towards graduate school without falling into egregious debt!

This advice feels so unromantic and practical, but genuinely: don’t take unpaid work if you don’t have the means. While the life of a conservator is difficult, you CAN make it financially sustainable. 

How do you think the art world can become more transparent? 

Ah… I’ve been thinking a lot about my future role (hopefully) working with museum collections, and whether or not I feel that museums are even ethical, period. Museums (particularly natural history museums, like The Field) have historically obtained a lot of their collections from indigenous creators through unethical, sometimes violent, means. Thankfully museums like The Field have begun repatriating contested objects, or working with indigenous creators to restructure their exhibits, acknowledging the objects’ storied pasts, but there is still a lot of work to be done, and I hope to see more museums acknowledge and rectify their collections’ issues. 

As a prospective museum-based textile conservator, I hope to be a part of this rectification by communicating with the objects’ creators (or their descendents) and incorporating their advice and desires into my textile treatments. I hope to treat objects from cultures other than my own, and I want to understand the cultural implications of so

Leah, thank you for participating in Frank Talks, it has been a delight! To finish off, we want to know: If you could own work by 5 different artists/craftspeople, who would be in your collection? 

Oh WOW. Great question! I found it super hard to choose, so don’t judge my choices!! Okay: 

  1. I’m a big Frank Lloyd Wright fan, and I’ve made it a goal to visit as many of his houses and buildings as possible. So far, I’ve made it out to the Robie House, Fallingwater, and Oak Park, and a few more; in the Art Institute of Chicago, there are quite a few stained glass works by Wright, so I think I’d want to have one of those in my home.
  2. It’s a little basic, but Gustav Klimt’s linework in his depiction of women is always SO compelling to me! I also love the glittery, sparkly mosaic/mural he created for his wife in his home, and I think I’d want to maybe have something like that in my dining room.
  3. Wassily Kandinsky has always been a HUGE favorite of mine; I love that his work is almost always completely abstract, but he still manages to convey such strong intentionality and structure with his color and linework. I’d hang one of his paintings in my living room! 
  4. I think Art Noveau will always have a special place in my heart, and I LOVE the enormous stained glass fountain in the American wing at the Met, so I’d also take a Louis Comfort Tiffany piece– a lamp, or a fountain, or something- I’m not picky!
  5. I love Ethiopia-born artist Julie Mehretu’s mural-sized paintings, which I first saw at the Whitney in NYC; like Kandinsky, she uses color, line, and movement to GREAT effect! I’d love to have one of her pieces, maybe taking up an entire wall in my bedroom!

You May Also Like