3 tips for conservation work

 8 February 2013

After a period of volunteering, Claire Armstrong secured a paid internship at a gallery and was able to build a career as a conservator. She spoke about her work and shared three tips for getting into conservation.

Claire's voluntary work, study of relevant subjects, and commitment enabled her to build a career as a conservator.
Claire's voluntary work, study of relevant subjects, and commitment enabled her to build a career as a conservator.

"As a conservator at Sheffield Libraries and Archives, I'm responsible for safeguarding the documents in the archives.

"I've always been fascinated by museums, galleries and historic places. I was encouraged as a child to develop my interest in cultural heritage.

"Having a job in conservation means I get paid to do what I love."

Starting out as a heritage volunteer

"I began volunteering at the age of 13. I worked at the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery in Bedford once I was too old to attend the children's workshops they ran.

"This voluntary work covered all areas of the gallery over the next few years, from the education department to the curatorial side. 

"It can be a challenge to get employers to see your volunteering as valuable."

"I tried to study art and history based subjects at school. I continued my love of practical art by studying for a BTEC foundation course in Art and Design. 

"I was advised against continuing with fine art at degree level. My parents felt it wasn't a suitable route to a job. Instead, I studied art history with a view to becoming a curator.

"My postgraduate diploma in Heritage Studies was chosen for the same reasons."

The challenges of volunteering

"As a volunteer, I sometimes found it difficult to get work on projects that really stretched my knowledge and skills.

"Having seen the workplace from the other side, I know it's hard for organisations to see interns and volunteers as anything more than an inconvenience.

"Often they are given the tedious jobs that get left behind because no-one else wants to do them.

"It can also be a challenge to get potential employers to see your volunteering as valuable work experience, or anything other than 'making the tea'.

"Luckily, over the years I spent at the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, I was given challenging tasks that stretched me. The staff were keen that I progressed, offering me assistance and advice."

Finding a heritage internship

"On finishing my diploma I got a job as a church restorer and decorator, which was fantastic for me as I was doing something practical. Sadly, I got made redundant after a year. 

"The job centre took a dim view of me doing anything voluntary, so I ended up taking the first new job I could get.  

"I worked in the planning departments of two councils until the boredom of an office job and the opportunity to get back into conservation work led me to work at the Nottinghamshire Archives on a six month contract.

"It was then that I discovered I had a flair for paper conservation. The Senior Conservator brought two paid internships to my attention. One was offered by the Institute of Conservation (ICON) and the other was with the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF).

"He felt I could go much further with archive conservation, but wasn't sure whether he'd be able to offer me anything at the end of my six months.

"My applications were a success, and I joined the Devon Record Office for six months. In that time, my knowledge and skills increased greatly with the guidance of the conservation staff there. 

"The internship was well thought out, and gave me the opportunity to explore several different areas of archive conservation.

"When the internship was complete, I applied for, and got, the role with Sheffield Archives."

Working in conservation

"A typical day starts with a check round the strongrooms. The fans need to be turned on, and the temperature and relative humidity monitored. This responsibility is shared between the staff of the conservation unit.

"After that, I can get on with my allotted projects. I generally have several on the go.

Don't be deterred by long distances or unsociable hours. Getting your hands dirty will help you go further."

"One involved school admissions books that have been well used over the past century. Repair work included cleaning the books, mending tears, and fitting the missing portions back together, as well as rebinding damaged books.

"As a conservator, I am there to help the staff of Sheffield Archives with queries or documents that need attention. I can also be called upon to help members of the public with conservation and preservation queries."

Developing a conservation career

"If I were to do my career over again, I think I would have tried to get more work experience rather than doing my postgraduate diploma. 

"Although my qualifications were interesting to do, and have been of use, I think I could have got as far and had a better time without them. 

"I could have focused instead, for example, on working towards a specific accreditation, such as a Certificate in Archives Conservation.

"There is an active community of conservators who publish and teach. In Italy, the Montefiascone Book Conservation Summer School offers training for book conservators.

"I've continued my learning with a number of one day courses looking at aspects of archive conservation.

"However, the six month internship that started my career was been the most useful course I've ever done. I would never have got my current position without it."

3 tips for becoming a conservator

1. Sell your skills with a portfolio

"It was a challenge to convince employers that my voluntary work experience was of value, so I made a good portfolio in two formats.

"I made an online version and a physical copy that I could take to interviews.

"It really does help you impress people at interview if you can show clearly what you have done and what you can do." 

2. Get experience any way you can 

"Despite having met some employers who failed to see the value of work experience, I would advise anyone wanting to get into the field of conservation or cultural heritage to go and get as much experience as possible.

"You will impress people at interview if you show clearly what you can do."

"Do not be deterred by long distances or unsociable hours. I spent six months living 220 miles away from my home and in a box room so I could complete my internship. 

"Not minding getting your hands dirty, and keeping your enthusiasm up, will help you go further."

3. Get into the sector any way you can

"Cultural heritage, the arts and conservation are often fairly low on the spending lists of local and central government.

"I found it quite hard to get into the field. However, once you're in, it's much easier to move around, especially by joining the various bodies and attending meetings.

"There is a lack of highly paid positions. This means that those who go into the sector do so because they have a passion or a great skill for it, rather than a wish to make money.

"The sector profits from that input and enthusiasm."

Stay updated

Sign up for our weekly careers newsletter

View our privacy policy.

Related jobs & apprenticeships

Related events & opportunities