Carroll County Times

Former resident's volunteerism leads to career at Metropolitan Museum of Art

Rebecca Fifield's volunteer work as a teen led to her current career at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

"When we lived in Green Bay, Wisc., and Becky was in middle school the first indication of her interests was when she became a costumed living history volunteer at Heritage Hill State Historical Park," said her dad, Larry Fifield, a Westminster resident.

"I went for volunteer training and worked in the 1830s section, a re-creation of the original Fort Howard," Rebecca said of her work there. "It gave me experience and got me used to talking to the public."

The following year the family moved to Westminster, where Rebecca volunteered and worked for the Carroll County Farm Museum for seven years. "I also worked [as a volunteer] at the Historical Society in Carroll County from 1996 to 1999," she said.

Rebecca, who graduated from Westminster High School in 1993, earned a bachelor's degree in museum studies at Mary Baldwin College and then attended George Washington University, where she was a recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities Collections Care Administrator Training Program fellowship. She earned a Master of Arts degree in museum studies from George Washington University.

Today she is collections manager for the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Between college and her current job, Rebecca worked at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston in the Textile Conservation Laboratory.

"I always had an interest in dress, needlework and textiles," Rebecca said. "I still do presentations and talks for historical groups on 18th-century women's dress."

She also wrote an article for Textile History, a United Kingdom scholarly journal. The article focused on a database she created.

"When indentured servants ran away, their owners would put out advertisements for their capture. They'd list what clothing they were wearing when they disappeared. My database lists the clothing these women were wearing, based on the advertisements. I have 1,000 women and 6,000 of their garments in the database," she said.

In October 2003, she began her work at the Met in the Antonio Ratti Textile Center. "I worked there until I moved in January of 2006 to AAOA," she said.

"She is an exceptionally able staff member in this department," Julie Jones, the Andrall E. Pearson Curator in Charge, Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, wrote in an email. "[Her] level of expertise now is such that she is keenly aware of this department's needs, can anticipate them, and plan for them. That and her ability to organize are especially beneficial to the department. She keeps us up to date and moving forward."

Rebecca said her work at the Met is varied, to say the least. The museum is about four city blocks long. Her day could have her running back and forth from one end to the other multiple times.

"Curators generally collect objects and write exhibitions. They are responsible for that aspect. A conservator fixes things when they break and does scientific research, among other things. My job falls somewhere in between," she said. "I'm responsible for the long-term view. What can we do now to prevent damage to our collections? It is easier and cheaper to do the work on front end and prevent damage than it is to fix things. I work to responsibly and efficiently apply resources to the care of our collections."

Rebecca is constantly thinking about collection storage, environmental monitoring and even scheduling. "If we are putting an exhibition up, I make sure everyone is where they need to be on time: carpenters, curators, photographers and others."

She also does research, cataloging, emergency preparedness and long-term preservation. "It's a long list," she said. "I do risk assessment, too. What could harm a collection in the future and what can we do now to protect it?"

She cleans items on exhibit, too. "A lot of our material is very fragile. It could be archeological or from areas of the globe with high humidity. Some of our collection are meant to be temporary in nature, meant to be used in a ceremony and then left to deteriorate. We work to preserve them. That's a challenge," she said.

In 2007 Rebecca was part of the renovation of the Pacific Gallery at the Met.

"It was busy, exciting work," she said. "You talk to painters at 7 a.m., organize the work schedule at 8 a.m., and then meet with curators and installers at 9 a.m. The collection is exciting but working with everyone there is exciting, too."

Outside her regular work, Rebecca is involved with the American Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, and is chairwoman of the New York Chapter of Alliance for Response, a project of Heritage Preservation, a national nonprofit foundation.

"People who work in museums are involved in professional organizations. We police ourselves and go to conferences to share ideas on how to improve what we are doing at our institutions," Rebecca said.

"Becky's own special interest is in collections management," Jones wrote, "a professional field that is still relatively new in art museums generally and in curatorial departments in particular. She has become something of an institutional leader in the field [at least in this museum], as art museums are more and more conscious of how important the quality maintenance of their collections is becoming. She is convincing us all of the risks we take on a daily basis and she wants us to be more aware of the untoward possibilities around us. We are sometimes a bit slow to follow her lead but she is persistent."