Every day, we lose pieces of our irreplaceable past, as symbols of the visions of artists, identities of civilizations and realities of history slip away. Legacies that should be left for future generations disappear as light, heat, moisture, air pollutants, insects and thoughtless human beings destroy cultural artifacts and archaeological materials — mosaics, wall paintings, rock art and other ancient treasures.

But in Malibu, Calif., in a building incorporating what was once the ranch house of J. Paul Getty, UCLA graduate students race against time to understand how deterioration happens and how to restore what has been lost or damaged. They study modern methods of protection and preservation, as well as ancient artifact technology, applying both science and art: organic and inorganic chemistry and materials science and engineering, as well as art history, archaeology and ethnography.

Enrolled in the UCLA/Getty Program in the Conservation of Archaeological and Ethnographic Materials, the students work in state-of-the-art labs to gain hands-on experience with objects on loan from the Fowler Museum at UCLA, the Autry National Center, the University of Southern California and Native American assemblages.

The program is the only graduate-level academic conservation program on the West Coast, and the only U.S. program focused solely on archaeological and ethnographic materials, rather than on fine art.

“Ours is a unique, boutique course of study,” says program chair Ioanna Kakoulli, a faculty member in materials science and engineering. In addition to technical skills, the students gain an understanding of the meaning the materials may still hold for indigenous populations and learn to work collaboratively and respectfully within one cultural context.

Prerequisites for students from a science background include a year of art history study and one of archaeology. Those with humanities or social science majors must take organic and inorganic chemistry. All must study a foreign language, accumulate 400 hours of conservation experience and present a portfolio of artistic work. An 11-month internship gives students real-world experience in museums or at cultural sites, such as active excavations, around the world.

Kakoulli says that what was once considered a craft learned through an apprenticeship has “evolved into a scientific discipline.”