Jason Church’s father used to say, “When you stop learning, you should be dead.” He probably had no idea that his son’s profession would put a unique twist on this phrase: Church is a graveyard conservator – that’s what I call him, at least.
I’ve known Church for a few years and affectionately call him a graveyard conservator, but his actual title is Materials Conservator for the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training (NCPTT), which is part of the National Park Service. In keeping with this issue’s focus on education, I interviewed Church about how his life and his career in a distinctive sector of the cultural field have been impacted by the people who taught him, and by the countless people he teaches himself.
Instructor Jason Church (far right) explains the pXRF (portable x-ray fluorescence) tool to students. Image provided by Jason Church.
One of Church’s earliest supporters in becoming a cemetery specialist was his fourth-grade North Carolina history teacher, Ms. Lucas. She assigned the class to do a local history project and he chose to do a video tour of the local Oakdale Cemetery in Wilmington, NC. “I got to know the caretaker,” Church says. “He took me around, told me all kinds of crazy stories, and my dad and I would go there on the weekends and hang out with him. We would even skip school and worked together a few times. He took us in one of the mausoleums, the things a normal person wouldn’t get to see, and after that I was always sort of interested.”
This early experience prompted Church to keep learning about cemeteries, even asking his parents to stop in graveyards while on family vacations. While this ongoing interest eventually led him to conservation, he didn’t exactly follow a direct path there – like many in the field, he found his way to conservation through an array of experiences. While completing his undergraduate degree in Building Sciences from Appalachian State University, Church “really enjoyed just taking classes. I did all the classes for a Woods Manufacturing degree and a Metals Manufacturing degree.” It was here that he learned “how buildings work and how they stand and why they fail,” but he didn’t yet have a clear sense of how he hoped to apply this knowledge post-graduation. What he did know was that he liked working with his hands. “Working with his hands” came to encompass running an antique business, taking summers off to lay stone, and serving as a teaching assistant in the Metals Manufacturing program. Church summarizes these disparate experiences succinctly: “I’m a materials person.”
But it wasn’t until his final year at ASU that conservation came into his life, almost by chance. Church explains, “Right before I graduated, my best friend and I took a road trip for spring break. There was a real bad storm where we were heading in Florida so we ended up going to Savannah for fun and sleeping for one night in the parking lot of the Savannah Visitors Center, just for economic reasons. We woke up and were parked right below a giant sign that said Department of Historic Preservation.” Without knowing much about what that meant, Church went in, talked to the staff and applied to the Savannah College of Art and Design’s MFA program in Historic Preservation.
His lifelong interest in cemeteries merged with his new interest in historic preservation thanks to one of his professors, Marlborough Packard. Seeing that Church, a full-time student with a full-time job and a child, didn’t have a schedule flexible enough for group projects, he found a way for Church to gain worthwhile learning experiences that worked for him. For the next group project, the documentation of a building, Mr. Packard said Church could document a mausoleum by himself, and he granted a similar allowance to Church for a subsequent project focused on a cemetery. Eventually, all of his projects were cemetery-related, which appealed to Church “because any building material that is out there you will find in a cemetery, just on a smaller scale.” Eventually Mr. Marlborough advised Church that after graduation he could specialize in cemeteries, a prospect that struck Church as an ideal application of his interests.
Luck was on Church’s side - the City of Savannah Department of Cemeteries had an opening and offered him the job. After a few years working solely on tombs, monuments and fences, a position came up at NCPTT looking for the skills Church had. Church explains, “Originally the job was to work with the group of scientists and the materials conservation program that were developing treatments and doing comparative studies…I would be their field person to go out and implement the treatments.” However, the role evolved as Church was given responsibility for a research project, leading to the multi-faceted position he currently occupies.
Left: Jason Church talks with a class about cleaning techniques for historic stone.
Right: Instructors Jason Church and Moss Rudley work with participants to reset a grave ledger.
Images provided by Jason Church.
In the nine years that he’s been with NCPTT, he has had the opportunity to do many things, and much as his teachers passed their knowledge to him, Church is spreading his knowledge to others. The NCPTT has a goal of teaching conservation and historic preservation to established professionals as well as the interested public. While the organization creates an extensive list of events, programs and resources, one program in particular is Church’s favorite. The Cemetery Monument Conservation Basics, called the CMC Basics for short, is meant to be a grassroots workshop in which he teaches people – genealogists, historians, those interested in caring for a family grave, or anyone interested in learning about cemetery conservation – who want to help but would like some guidance. “I love working with those people and knowing that the knowledge doesn’t end with them,” he comments. “I know most of those people are going to turn around and go home and teach more people. And I love doing that - I’d teach them every day if I could.” The CMC Basics workshops are held regularly across the U.S. and often focus on topics unique to the host region. For Church, who is a seasoned conservator, it’s the hundreds of thousands of sites that they will never be able to get to that he is concerned about: “This at least gives those sites a chance to have the right thing done to them where maybe nothing is being done, or many times improper things are being done.”
In addition to teaching people in person, he also teaches people through The Preservation Technology Podcast, which is available on NCPTT’s website and iTunes. Originally the brainchild of Jeff Guin, who worked in marketing and public affairs for NCPTT, its goal is to be a broad exploration of conservation and preservation. Guin started the project because the field lacked any material of this kind, and Church was the natural first interview subject in Who Wants to Preserve A Cemetery? (Episode 1). When Guin left NCPTT, Church was put in charge of the podcast, acting as editor, transcriber and frequent interviewer. The NCPTT team has kept it going and is now on episode 55.
Tony Rajer posing for a picture beside his poster presentation on the Nek Chand Foundation at the AIC annual conference in Milwaukee, 2010. Image provided by Jason Church.
When I ask what one of his favorite episodes was, he replies, “I have pretty much enjoyed and fallen in love with all the people I interview and I think their projects are great.” And they truly are. Podcast guests have presented an incredibly broad swath of topics, including the conservation of a taxidermy orangutan, the maintenance of Mount Vernon, using lasers to clean graffiti, the FBI and art crime, and preserving LGBT history. One of Church’s particular favorites was Anna Muto’s interview of John Watson, Instruments Conservator and Associate Curator at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Their discussion was centered on the difference in conserving a musical instrument in playable condition versus in exhibit-ready condition. Another favorite is his interview with Tony Rajar, Art Conservator at the Nek Chand Foundation. Not only is this interview interesting, covering Mr. Rajar’s interest in folk art and his work with the Rock Garden in Chandigarh, India, but Mr. Rajar passed away soon afterwards and it was also the only interview ever recorded of the prolific author and professor.
I ended the interview by asking Church two final questions. First: what is his advice to someone interested in getting into the field of conservation or historic preservation? He advises those aspiring to this work to start by talking to someone already in conservation and recommends the AIC’s blog Conservators Converse and the ECPN’s Facebook page, which allows visitors to ask questions to students in relevant programs. He adds, “unless you love it, unless you really love it, and I mean really really love it, I don’t think it’s the job for you. There are very few of us out there making a lot of money. It’s not a field that you get into because you want to be rich; it’s a field you’ve got to get into because you love it. It has to be something where on family vacations you want to hit the museums; at night you are sitting there reading a book about an artist. You’ve got to have that passion or I just don’t think it’s going to be the field for you.”
This tied into my second question – what does he hope to learn in the future? His answer: “I want to learn it all. I never want to stop learning. My dad used to say when you stop learning, you should be dead.” And that is the mindset of my friend, the graveyard conservator.
Jason Church taking color measurement on the Macomb monument at Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. Image provided by Jason Church.
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