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Careers in Conservation

There are a variety of career paths available to individuals who wish to become involved in heritage conservation and preservation.

The full practice of conservation, particularly treatments (or what the public commonly refers to as restoration), is carried out by conservators. These highly skilled practitioners generally have post-secondary education specifically in conservation, and continue to study and build skills throughout their careers. Their work is complemented by that of conservation scientists, who use a knowledge of science to support and enhance the development of conservation solutions. (If one were to use a medical analogy, conservators would be the equivalent of surgeons while conservation scientists would be medical researchers.) Conservators and conservation scientists follow a Code of Ethics that outlines appropriate interactions with artifacts, clients, and colleagues.

Other professions associated with heritage preservation include curator, museum technician, archaeologist, archivist, etc. Individuals in these professions have a general knowledge of preservation issues and practices, an understanding of how various types of objects behave in different environments, and a good appreciation for the actions required to ensure the long-term preservation of these objects. However, although they work closely with heritage objects and collections in museums, archives, and related institutions, they do not normally have the specialized training to carry out conservation treatments and restorations.

A brief description of the professions of conservator and conservation scientist is provided below. Further information on these careers, as well as other related careers, can be found in the sites listed at the end of the document.

What is a conservator?

A conservator is an individual with the training, knowledge, and expertise to perform a variety of preservation-related activities (e.g. examinations and condition assessments of objects, treatments, documentation, and preventive conservation) within a specialty such as paintings, textiles, or furniture. Qualified conservators are highly skilled practitioners with years of training and experience.

What educational background should a conservator have?

Post-secondary education in conservation, at either a university or a college of applied arts and technology, is required by the heritage community.

Knowledge of materials and how they interact with the environment is essential because it is only through this understanding that conservators can reduce or prevent further damage and judge the suitability of various conservation treatments. Knowledge of art history, anthropology, archaeology, or natural history is also important as is a high level of manual dexterity.

What do conservators do?

  • conserve objects of historic/artistic value by developing, planning, coordinating, and conducting conservation and restoration treatment projects within an area of specialization (this includes assessing the condition of the artifact, determining the state and causes of physical and chemical deterioration, recommending and undertaking appropriate treatment, and documenting the entire process)
  • provide advice and make recommendations on preventive conservation, i.e. appropriate methods and techniques to prevent damage to heritage objects during display, storage, handling and shipping
  • contribute to the development of new methodologies or tools used in the conservation treatment of cultural property by conducting or participating in applied research projects
  • advise and collaborate with conservation scientists on scientific research projects
  • communicate concepts, ideas, and research results

Where do conservators work?

  • museum/ archive conservation laboratories
  • national/provincial conservation laboratories
  • university/college education programs
  • private practice

What is a conservation scientist?

A conservation scientist is an individual trained in science who applies the knowledge and tools of the scientific discipline in which he/she was educated to the resolution of problems relevant to conservation practice.

What educational background does a conservation scientist have?

A B.Sc. in chemistry (analytical, organic/inorganic) or another scientific discipline relevant to conservation (e.g. physics, biology, geology, engineering) is the minimum requirement. Formal university training in conservation science is offered in some countries.

Knowledge of art history, archaeology, human/natural history, or another relevant discipline is also important.

What do conservation scientists do?

  • conduct scientific research and analyses to assess the chemical and physical properties of historic and artistic objects, natural history specimens, and related materials, and provide advice to conservators based on the results
  • test physical, chemical, and optical properties of materials used in the treatment, storage, display, and transport of historic and artistic objects
  • propose and design research projects in areas such as conservation processes and materials research; the physical, biological, and chemical effects of temperature, relative humidity, light, pests, and pollutants; and protection of art in transit
  • communicate research results to the heritage community
  • collaborate with conservators, other scientists, curators, and other specialists

Where do conservation scientists work?

A conservation scientist may find employment in:

  • museum conservation laboratories
  • university/college education programs
  • national/provincial conservation laboratories
  • private laboratories

For a list of related links click here.