Conservators and Conservation Technicians


Exploring this Job

If you are considering a career in the conservation of art or artifacts, try contacting local museums or art conservation laboratories that may allow tours or interviews. Read trade or technical journals to gain a sense of the many issues addressed by conservators. Contact professional organizations, such as the American Institute for Conservation, for directories of training and conservation programs.

Because employment in this field, even at entry level, most often entails the handling of precious materials and cultural resources, you should be fairly well prepared before contacting professionals to request either internship or volunteer positions. You need to demonstrate a high level of academic achievement and have a serious interest in the career to edge out the competition for a limited number of jobs.

The Job

Artifacts and works of art can be damaged by a variety of factors. According to the University of Arizona, the most-common agents of deterioration and damage to artifacts and art are pests (cockroaches, certain types of beetles), mold and mildew, light, theft and vandalism, fire, physical force, water, incorrect temperature, incorrect humidity, neglect, and pollutants. 

Conservation professionals generally choose to specialize in one area of work defined by medium, such as in the preservation of books and paper, architecture, objects, photographic materials, paintings, textiles, or wooden artifacts. There are also conservators who specialize in archaeology or ethnographic materials. Many are employed by museums, while others provide services through private practice. Conservation activities include carrying out technical and scientific studies on art objects, stabilizing the structure and reintegrating the appearance of cultural artifacts, and establishing the environment in which artifacts are best preserved. A conservator's responsibilities also may include documenting the structure and condition through written and visual recording, designing programs for preventive care, and executing conservation treatments. Conservation tools include microscopes and cameras and equipment for specialized processes such as infrared and ultraviolet photography and X-rays.

Conservation technicians assist conservators in preserving or restoring artifacts and art objects. To do this, they study descriptions and information about the object, and may perform chemical and physical tests as specified by the conservator. If an object is metal, a technician may be instructed to clean it by scraping or by applying chemical solvents. Statues are washed with soap solutions, and furniture and silver is polished.

When a repair is necessary, conservation technicians may be asked to reassemble the broken pieces using glue or solder (a metallic substance used to join metal surfaces), then buff the object when the repair is complete. They may repaint objects where the original paint is faded or missing, making sure to use paint of the same chemical composition and color as the original. Technicians may also make and repair picture frames and mount paintings in frames.

A conservation scientist is a professional scientist whose primary focus is in developing materials and knowledge to support conservation activities. Some specialize in scientific research into artists' materials, such as paints and varnishes or photographic emulsions. Conservation educators have substantial knowledge and experience in the theory and practice of conservation, and have chosen to direct their efforts toward teaching the principles, methodology, and technical aspects of the profession. Preparators supervise the installation of specimens, art objects, and artifacts, often working with design technicians, curators, and directors to ensure the safety and preservation of items on display.