Navigating the field of conservation is not easy. Below is our guide on to enter the field of conservation. It addresses who conservators are, career options in conservation, types of education and training, such as apprenticeships and graduate programs, undergraduate prerequisites for graduate programs, professional experience needed prior to entering a graduate program, studying abroad, post graduate education and training, and continuing professional development.
What is a Conservator?
Conservators are responsible for the long- term preservation of artistic and cultural artifacts. They do this by analyzing and assessing the condition of cultural property, understanding processes and evidence of deterioration, planning collections care or site management strategies that prevent damage, carrying out conservation treatments, and conducting research in all of the areas previously indicated. Conservation is an interdisciplinary field involving studio practices, sciences, and the humanities.
A conservator’s responsibilities may include:
- Examination procedures to determine the materials, method of manufacture, and properties of objects or structures and the causes and extent of deterioration or alteration.
- Scientific analysis and research to identify historic and artistic methods and materials of fabrication, and to evaluate the efficacy and appropriateness of materials and procedures of conservation.
- Documentation procedures to record the condition of an object or site at a specific time, or before, during, and after treatment, and to outline treatment methods and materials in detail.
- Treatment, including interventive procedures, as well as passive measures to stabilize an artifact or retard its deterioration.
- Restoration to bring a deteriorated or damaged object or structure closer to a previous or assumed appearance or function.
- Advising on procedures for the safe exhibition and travel of cultural materials.
Career Options in Conservation
Conservators often specialize in a particular material or group of objects such as paintings, art on paper, textiles, archives, books, photographs, electronic media, sculpture, decorative arts, architecture, built environments, archaeology, natural science, or ethnographic materials and work in a variety of environments including museums, regional facilities, heritage institutions, libraries, universities, archives, laboratories, government agencies, and private conservation enterprises. Related job titles are conservation administrator, conservation educator, conservation scientist, conservation technician, and collections care/preservation specialist.
Conservator: A professional whose primary occupation is the practice of conservation and who, through specialized education, knowledge, training, and experience, formulates and implements all the activities of conservation in accordance with an ethical code such as the AIC Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice.
Conservation Administrator: A professional with substantial knowledge of conservation who is responsible for the administrative aspects and implementation of conservation activities in accordance with an ethical code such as the AIC Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice.
Conservation Educator: A professional with substantial knowledge and experience in the theory and techniques of conservation whose primary occupation is to teach the principles, methodology, and/or technical aspects of the profession in accordance with an ethical code such as the AIC Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice.
Conservation Scientist: A professional scientist whose primary focus is the application of specialized knowledge and skills to support the activities of conservation in accordance with an ethical code such as the AIC Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice.
Conservation Technician: An individual who is trained and experienced in specific conservation treatment activities and who works in conjunction with or under the supervision of a conservator. A conservation technician may also be trained and experienced in specific preventive care activities.
Collections Care/Preservation Specialist: An individual who is trained and experienced in specific preventive care activities and who works in conjunction with or under the supervision of a conservator.
Education and training for such careers should provide technical and scientific knowledge of materials and deterioration processes, develop appropriate aesthetic and perceptual abilities, and instill an essential ethical perspective.
Apprenticeships and Internships
Before the establishment of graduate degree programs in conservation, apprenticeships were the primary method of training, and apprenticeships and internships continue to be an excellent source of education and training. Today, graduate education has become the more recognized route into the profession. A traditional apprenticeship refers to an in-depth, long-term training period. A student may elect to pursue a traditional apprenticeship or series of apprenticeships as an alternative to a graduate program. This approach often takes longer than a degree program to acquire comparable education. To acquire a complete conservation education, the student must supplement practical training with readings, course work, and research.
The term internship refers to workplace training at any level of a conservator’s development. Introductory level internships, often referred to in the profession as pre-program internships, help prepare individuals for more advanced study. Graduate internships are part of a degree program curriculum.