By Roger Williams
On the trip's fourth day (see parts I and II), we stumbled-beaten and broken by long days of walking around Paris-to a West Dean sister school of sorts: L'Institut national du patrimoine: Département des restaurateurs, in Aubervilliers (Translation: the National Institute of Cultural Heritage: Conservation Department). The INP has two main departments, and things get confusing in the translation. The French refer to curators as "conservateurs" and conservators as "restaurateurs." So the school's main campus in downtown Paris, the Département des conservateurs, is where their curators are trained, while the Département des restaurateurs in Aubervilliers is where conservators are trained. Got it? OK.
The INP conservation department has six disciplines: ceramics & metals, graphic arts & books, textiles, furniture, paintings, and photography. It began as an entirely separate institute-the French Institute of the restoration of works of art-in 1977. In 1996, this program merged with the National Heritage School for curators. The institute took on its current name of L'Institut national du patrimoine in 2001.
Prospective students take a series of entry exams. A preliminary science, illustration and technical drawing test helps determine whether students are right for the program. From there, applicants take the official entry exam that includes both oral comprehension and hand skills. There are five spaces available each year for each program, but they are not filled if qualified students do not apply.
The program lasts five years, with carefully structured study-time focused on the materials encountered in each discipline. In their third year, students attend a three-month internship at a local institution. In the fourth year, all students do a six-month internship abroad, often at major institutions like the Smithsonian and the Victoria & Albert Museum.
Apart from their disciplinary practical work, all conservation students study together in the sciences (chemistry, physics, biology), art history, preventative conservation, conservation ethics and law, drawing and photography, professional studies, etc.
The program's final year is devoted to thesis writing, during which students focus on the research and treatment of a single object. The year is divided into three segments: research, writing, and practical treatment.
The West Dean Bookies' visit to INP was spent mostly in their graphic arts & books department, unsurprisingly. We saw students lining and in-filling on mid-century movie posters, and balsa wood fills made to 16th-century wooden bookboards. The students explained their work to us in varying levels of English, which only added to how impressed we were.
We also stopped by the furniture and metals departments, mostly for some conservation-geek eye candy.
It was a bit eery walking around INP that morning, as it felt a bit like visiting the West Dean of some alternate universe-an urban, publicly-funded version of our own world, populated by hyper-intelligent French students.
We departed in a daze, wondering what our lives would be like at L'Institut national du patrimoine. On the long bus ride home, we drifted into dreams, narrated in French and peppered with baguettes, wine, and old books.