Case study

Furniture conservator — Alex Owen

Alex uses the skills developed during his conservation degree and as a museum intern to preserve items of furniture for future generations. Find out what skills you need to become a conservator

How did you get your job as a conservator?

While studying for a degree in conservation at City & Guilds of London Art School I worked as an intern for a museum, and then later applied for a position as a furniture conservator there. Although I didn't get that particular job, I did get to the interview stage, which meant that when a contract came up I was fresh in their minds and was offered the job.

What's a day as a conservator like?

It's very varied and depends on what objects I’m working on, and the stage of their treatment. I spend the majority of my day on practical work, treating objects from the furniture collection. As a museum conservator I employ a combination of traditional craft skills and materials, alongside more modern methods and synthetic materials, to preserve the objects in the museum's collection.

I also spend time liaising with curators, scientists, technicians and other conservators. Time is regularly spent writing treatment reports, which includes photographing the objects.

What do you enjoy about being a conservator?

I love that each time I complete a treatment, I become a part of that object's story. I love that my work involves the combination of a great deal of rigorous and methodical thinking, with the need for exceptional hand skills.

The people are also very nice.

What are the challenges?

The stakes are high - a mistake can lead to irreparable damage to the nation's heritage. It can feel an uphill struggle, especially at the beginning when you have little experience, and good, paid jobs are so rare.

In what way is your degree relevant?

My degree was particularly vocational. It focused on equipping students with the appropriate combination of craft, scientific, ethical and art historical knowledge required of modern museum conservators.

How has your role developed?

My skills and experience working with different materials and using new and interesting practical techniques have grown over time. I'm more capable and can take on larger and more complex treatments with ease. I've also taken on responsibility for looking after students and interns, and for overseeing the conservation of items for loans.

My ambition is to become accredited by our professional body, the Institute of Conservation (Icon), and to continue to develop my practical skills. I'd also like to find the time to conduct research and publish it.

What are your tips for becoming a conservator?

Spend as much time as possible practising hand skills in your chosen field. Try and get to grips with the chemistry and materials science required of modern conservators from the outset.

Stay humble and always be willing to learn from a situation or person. Never turn down an offer of work, at least in the first couple of years.

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