Museum/art gallery conservator
Makes sure that objects and works of art are kept in the best possible condition by devising the best protection against decay or degradation. This can mean maintaining, repairing and cleaning and restoring them with the minimum of intervention.
Conservators also work to create an environment where the item will be best preserved. A conservator usually has a specialty such as books, furniture, ceramics, paintings, photos or textiles.
For this they use a variety of scientific techniques such as x-ray, carbon dating, microscopes and infra-red photography. They then use artisan skills combined with scientific methods to repair and conserve the items.
Typical responsibilities include:
- Dating of objects/materials.
- Sourcing of paintings or objects of interest
- Certification of item authenticity.
- Displaying items
- Estimating costs for repair and presenting these to management for approval.
- Helping install exhibitions.
- Keep records of any interventions in order that these can be improved as techniques evolve over time.
- Taking photographs of objects.
- Assessing, advising and monitoring the environments in which items are kept.
- Advising other staff on the handling of artefacts.
- When articles are sent to other museums supervising the packing and correct handling
- Giving talks and presentations about objects or their work.
- Supervise volunteers or interns
- Working on new materials to research new possibilities in the field.
- Can work within museums, studios or laboratories.
- A 39-hour week, though as an exhibition approaches this may mean evening or weekend work.
- Based within the museum or gallery though may have to visit other sites to give advice or to set up exhibitions, ensuring the safety of the artefacts.
- There are many short-term contracts particularly for newly qualified conservators.
- There is the possibility of working overseas
- Promotion to senior conservator or to a larger gallery/museum. You could also become self-employed on a consultancy basis.
- Also called restorer, conservator, museum/art gallery.
Personal Qualities and Skills
Key skills for conservators
- Practical ability to use a range of tools with great precision
- A passion for art or history.
- Self-motivation as much of the work is solitary and unsupervised.
- Scientific knowledge (particularly chemistry) to be able to assess light, humidity and temperature for preservation of artefacts and paintings and knowing the impact of substances on the article.
- Good problem-solving ability
- Colour perception is important and colour blindness may be an issue for the work.
- The work is painstaking so patience is an essential quality.
- Able to work within a budget.
- Good at keeping to deadlines.
- Report writing
- Communication both the public and colleagues.
- An eye for detail and methodical working practices
- Keeping up to date with changing methods of conservation
Pay And Opportunities
Typical employers of conservators
- Can be employed by art galleries and museums though most are self-employed.
- Heritage organisations such as Historic Royal Palaces, English Heritage, National Trust
- Local authorities who run smaller museums and heritage sites.
- Universities who have historic galleries and museums
- Private collections or those run by organisations.
- Websites such as ICON, Museums Association, local and national newspapers, university departments, The International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, for opportunities overseas. Many vacancies are found through word of mouth once you are working in sector.
Qualifications and training required
Most conservators are university graduates and there are a small number of specialist degree courses. It is possible to do a postgraduate qualification in conservations after studying a degree such as art, history, archaeology, or science. Good science grades, particularly Chemistry at A level or Scottish Advanced Higher would be useful if your degree does not have a chemistry element. The Institute of Conservation (ICON) has a list of courses. There is a strong tradition of internships, some of which are paid and this along with work experience are vital in getting into the role. The Heritage Lottery Fund run a programme called “Skills for the Future” which is paid and based in museums across the country. Museums Galleries Scotland run events and training to help individuals work in museums and galleries.
There are apprenticeships to work in galleries and museums which would be a good way to get into the sector particularly in archiving, stone and metalwork. There is a route through the Victoria and Albert Museum who run an approved level 4 Work Based Conservation Collections Care Technicians Diploma.
Icon run the Professional Accreditation of Conservator-Restorers and maintain a register of professionals. Accreditation demonstrates competence within the field which if you are self-employed could be an advantage when looking for new projects or work.
There is a commitment to continuous professional development and further training. Icon run some of these programmes as do the Museums Association.