Conservator

 12 March 2013

Conservators can work on all items in a heritage collection, from textiles to buildings. They are concerned with items' physical conditions.

Conservators examine each item to assess and record damage.
Conservators examine each item to assess and record damage.

What does a conservator do?

Conservators are concerned with the physical condition of a collection and the items in it. They work on all types of items and materials found in heritage collections, including:

  • textiles
  • papers and other paper-based items such as maps and plans
  • photographic materials, including films
  • works of art, including sculpture
  • buildings
  • archaeological objects
  • glass, including stained glass
  • furniture.

Conservators usually specialise in one of these areas of conservation.

Dealing with damage

Conservation work is very methodical. It is carried out according to the conservation plan for the collection.

Items may become damaged or be subject to environmental deterioration over time.

The conservator examines each item to assess and record damage. They decide on a conservation strategy, taking into account the condition and age of the item.

Conservation can involve both treatment of damage and prevention of future damage. Conservators advise collections on how items should be stored, transported and displayed.

Conservation work is very methodical. It is carried out according to the conservation plan for the collection.

The work may also include:

  • providing advice to colleagues
  • in public collections, giving talks and demonstrations at outreach events
  • advising members of the public on how to look after items they own
  • supervising volunteers and interns.

Some conservation departments may take commercial (paid-for) work so conservators may be giving estimates and meeting customer deadlines.

You may have, or develop, an interest in a specialist area of heritage work. This could be historical documents, for example, or art of a particular type or in a historical period.

Features of the role

In a large collection, the work is carried out by a team of conservators and senior conservators, led by a manager or head of conservation. There may also be one or more conservation assistants.

As a conservator you may wear protective clothing. This may be to protect yourself, from dust or chemicals, for example. You may also need to protect the delicate items you are working with.

Most conservators work for a heritage organisation. Some experienced conservators work freelance.

How do I become a conservator?

Conservators need to have a strong interest in heritage and its preservation as well as being:

  • confident communicators with excellent interpersonal skills
  • methodical and able to pay great attention to detail
  • good at problem-solving, prioritising and organising their own work schedule
  • creative
  • able to work independently as well as part of a team.

Conservators add to their skills and knowledge throughout their careers. You can expect to keep studying and learning.

Employers may expect you to provide a portfolio of your work when applying for a job.

Training and qualifications

Most jobs need a recognised conservation qualification. The most widely-recognised is PACR (Professional Accreditation of Conservator-Restorers) through ICON (The Institute of Conservation). You achieve PACR by a mixture of work and study.

There are several typical entry routes:

  • a degree in conservation.
  • a degree in another subject, such as archaeology or fine art,  followed by a Masters or a postgraduate Diploma in conservation.
  • non-degree courses in other areas of conservation, such as stained glass, furniture or books. 
  • extensive practical experience through a traineeship. These are offered by some local authorities and heritage organisations in the conservation of stone, metalwork or natural history.

Courses include practical work as well as theoretical study.

Those who enter by a non-degree route may choose to take a conservation qualification during their career. This could be a degree, a Masters or a postgraduate Diploma. Courses are available full- or part-time or by distance learning. The ICON website has a list of courses.

Some employers may ask for other relevant qualifications. For example, for building conservation work, they may ask for membership of RICS (Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors).

PACR-accredited conservators can apply to join the Conservation Register.

Experience

Like much heritage work, this is a very competitive area to get into, so it is essential to get as much experience as possible. Either paid or voluntary work will help you to build up your knowledge and skills.

Most museums and heritage sites welcome volunteers, although there can be competition for these opportunities as well.

What will I earn?

ICON (The Institute of Conservation) recommends a minimum of £15,000 for paid internships.

A conservation assistant could earn £15,000 to £17,000. A conservator could earn around £21,000 to £27,000.

A conservation manager could earn £38,000. The head of conservation at a large heritage organisation could earn £60,000 or more.


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