Conservators are trained professionals who focus on the care and restoration of objects that have cultural or historical value. Such objects may include paintings and sculptures, fine prints, textiles, books, photographs, archival records and paper, and archeological artifacts. These artifacts are considered valuable sources of information for study and research, specifically in their original form. Conservators develop skills that allow them to examine an artifact, learn about its original form and purpose, and develop a plan for the care and maintenance it requires for continued use, study, and long-term preservation. Conservators receive training that specifically relates to this process and includes advanced study in artistic, historical, and scientific topics that provide a greater understanding of the materials with which they work.
A conservator determines what an artifact is composed of and what is required to preserve an artifact in its original form or as close to that original form as possible. A conservator must examine an artifact to determine the amount of damage or deterioration that has occurred. This examination often involves research concerning the history of an artifact and its cultural significance. Conservators also gather information through scientific analysis of the properties of an artifact—always ensuring that materials used in conservation treatments do not damage or destroy an artifact.
Professional conservators are trained to develop treatment methods that maintain the form, structure, and appearance of artifacts, to fix and repair damage to objects, and to develop treatments that stabilize, decrease, or halt further damage and deterioration. Treatment methods, most of which are done painstakingly by hand, may result in restoring an artifact to a close facsimile of its original appearance. Types of conservation treatments include cleaning and repairing tears in paper, creating envelopes or boxes to house artifacts (such as books), restoring paintings, removing mold and adhesives on objects, and developing recommendations for the proper storage of artifacts. When applying treatments, professional conservators are careful to make sure that any repairs or steps taken to stabilize an artifact do not alter or destroy its original form or historical integrity. For example, a conservator might repair a torn photograph or clean a photograph using appropriate solvents that do not cause staining, abrasions, or loss of the original image. Conservators also take steps to ensure that treatments or repairs made to an object can be reversed if necessary.
Conservators document the condition of an object before treatments are undertaken, the types of treatments they perform, and the condition of an object after treatment. Conservators also develop recommendations and guidelines for continued care or preventative care of artifacts and make recommendations concerning the type of storage environment that should be used to assure long-term preservation of an artifact. For example, a conservator can determine which type of storage enclosure will protect a photograph from dust and light, discuss proper handling methods, and recommend a long-term storage environment with temperature and humidity controls. In addition, conservators work with individuals who administer collections in order to assess conservation and preservation needs, to establish priorities for conservation work, and to develop cost estimates and budgets for conservation treatments.
All conservators are involved in the treatment and care of artifacts or collections of artifacts. There are specializations within the profession that allow an individual to develop skills that may adapt to the needs of a particular institution, focus on specific types of objects, or involve other conservation work such as preservation, administration, or education. Conservators may be employed in museums, libraries, archival repositories, or similar institutions. Alternatively, conservators may be employed on a contractual basis by institutions that do not have the resources to maintain a conservation laboratory or preservation department. Private collectors, as well as institutions such as libraries, archives, and museums may hire a conservator on such a contractual basis. Conservators may also choose to maintain their own businesses.
Individuals who are interested in conservation as a career must acquire the appropriate scientific, historical, and cultural knowledge that is necessary to become a practicing conservator. Those interested in a career as a professional conservator seek academic training in a graduate-level program. Coursework in conservation programs provides the theoretical and scientific background required for the application of conservation methods and treatments in a professional setting. Graduate programs typically include core classes in such areas as chemistry, studio art, art history, anthropology, archaeology, and related classes in the humanities and the sciences, as outlined by the American Institute for Conservation in "Conservation Training in the United States" (2000). Admission requirements and graduation requirements will vary depending on the program. Information about the individual prerequisites for graduate work in conservation is usually provided by academic institutions and by professional conservation associations.
Graduate programs in conservation are now recognized as the standard for training professional conservators, but internships are a valued and integral part of graduate coursework and research. Internships provide an opportunity for students to receive instruction in a variety of conservation methods, to see how these methods are practiced, and to have an opportunity for hands-on training. Internship opportunities allow a student to gain experience and training in an area most closely related to their interests. Individuals who are interested in conservation internships may find such opportunities through graduate programs, professional conservation organizations, or by contacting a conservator.
Once an individual becomes a practicing conservator, continued professional development is required, particularly in areas of technology, research, and conservation treatments. Participating in workshops, continuing education classes and seminars, attending conferences sponsored by professional conservation organizations, and reading current literature offer opportunities for professional development. Conservators also have a specific philosophy and set of guidelines that assist them in achieving a high standard of work. Conservators are encouraged to maintain a commitment to these standards and high levels of performance.
American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works. (1991). Guidelines for Selecting a Conservator. Washington, DC: AIC.
American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works. (1994). "AIC Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice." <http://aic.stanford.edu/pubs/ethics.html>.
American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works. (2001). "AIC Conservation Training in the United States." <http://aic.stanford.edu/become/contrain.html>.
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M. E. Ducey