Museum Conservator

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Museum Conservator

Education and Training: Master's degree with internship

Salary: Median—$32,860 per year

Employment Outlook: Good

Definition and Nature of the Work

Museums are where we keep our treasures. Museum conservators care for and restore those treasures—paintings, plant and animal specimens, pottery, jewelry, and other objects of historic value such as tools or weapons made by humans long ago. Some conservators work with coins, stamps, and even antique dolls.

Conservators conduct historical, scientific, and archaeological research using chemical tests, x-rays, and microscopes. The results of this research helps them determine the age and condition of a given object—information that is vital to the restoration process. Conservators clean paintings and preserve items made of paper, wood, or clay with sealants and hardeners to prevent breakage or further decay. They also repair surfaces, reassemble objects with broken parts, build mounts for fossils, and construct copies of artifacts.

The proper storage of items is extremely important to their preservation. Museum conservators determine the appropriate climate-control measures suitable for a given object's preservation. For instance, a conservator working in an art museum would need a thorough knowledge of paint chemistry and temperature and lighting effects to safeguard a five-hundred-year-old painting.

Education and Training Requirements

Requirements vary depending on the museum. Conservators generally need at least a master's degree in conservation or in a closely related field. Only a few schools offer master's degree programs in conservation. The best qualified candidates for acceptance into such a program have a background in chemistry, archaeology, studio art, and art history. A small number of conservators learn their skills through apprenticeships at museums, nonprofit organizations, or with conservators in private practice.

Getting the Job

Potential museum conservators should apply directly to the museums in which they would like to work. School placement offices, professional journals, and Internet job lists carry announcements of openings in this field.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

The employment outlook in this profession is good through the year 2014. If existing museums expand and new ones are built, opportunities for employment and advancement may increase; however, the number of applicants will far exceed the number of available jobs, so competition will remain stiff. Additionally, federal funding for museums decreased in the first decade of the twenty-first century, so sufficient funds may not be available to expand staff openings. If funding is available, conservators at large organizations may advance to higher levels of responsibility. Those in small organizations may advance to larger ones.

Working Conditions

Conservators usually work indoors in pleasant studios but may on rare occasions work outside. The work requires physical strength to lift heavy objects; the dexterity to grasp very small objects; and good eyesight to see differences in color, shading, and brightness. Conservators need the patience to do repetitive tasks. The work is painstakingly exact; any errors can permanently damage artworks or artifacts.

Where to Go for More Information

American Association of Museums
1575 Eye St. NW, Ste. 400
Washington, DC 20005
(202) 289-1818

Earnings and Benefits

The earnings of museum conservators vary depending on the type, size, and location of museum. Salaries also depend on individual experience, education, and professional reputation. Large federal museums generally pay more than state or local museums. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for museum conservators in 2004 was $32,860 per year. Most full-time workers in large museums received paid vacations and holidays, health insurance, and retirement benefits.