Conservators need to know how to care for artefacts, how they deteriorate and how to give them a new lease of life

Depending on which area of conservation you're working in, you may be involved in treating objects directly - known as remedial conservation - to prevent deterioration, stabilise the object and undertake restoration (if appropriate).

Alternatively, you might focus on monitoring and controlling the environment in which collections are stored or displayed to prevent deterioration in the first place - this is known as preventive conservation. In some roles, you'll work on a combination of the two.

Conservators work in museums and galleries, historic properties, or archives and libraries. Work can be as an employee or on a freelance basis. You can also work in the private sector for a conservation practice.

Types of conservator

Conservators tend to specialise in an area of conservation, such as:

  • archaeology
  • archives
  • ceramics and glass
  • dynamic objects
  • furniture and wood
  • gilding and decorative surfaces
  • historic interiors
  • metals
  • modern and contemporary art
  • paintings
  • paper and books
  • photographic materials
  • stained glass
  • stone and wall paintings
  • textiles.

Responsibilities

As a conservator, you'll need to:

  • examine artefacts, both visually and using scientific tools such as x-rays, infrared photography and microscopic analysis, to determine the extent and causes of deterioration
  • keep full conservation records by writing up notes on the object's condition and any previous restoration work that has been done
  • produce a visual record of the object for identification purposes and to illustrate its condition
  • monitor and record display and storage conditions in order to keep objects in a stable condition
  • propose and estimate the costs of treatments to halt decay and reveal the true nature of objects
  • negotiate with colleagues to justify a proposed treatment regime
  • organise the logistics of long-term projects and collaborate with other conservators in person and by email
  • work out creative solutions to clean, support and repair sensitive objects
  • use a range of conservation instruments such as scalpels, cotton swabs, dental and carpentry tools, and solvents/adhesives
  • recreate historically-accurate finishes, such as mixing traditional paints from scratch
  • develop and maintain appropriate professional standards within your specialist area
  • keep up to date with the latest conservation techniques and practices, through research and training.

You may also need to:

  • host laboratory or site tours for school groups and other visitors
  • deliver talks and presentations to amateur and professional audiences
  • supervise volunteers, interns, junior conservation staff and students
  • help to set up exhibitions
  • advise other organisations on conservation issues
  • accompany objects in transit to other locations
  • handle fragile or decayed objects found during work in the field and on archaeological excavations
  • get involved in advocacy work.

Salary

  • The average salary for a junior conservator is £26,500. A minimum salary of £27,270 for entry-level conservators is recommended by The Institute of Conservation (Icon).
  • As a middle-ranking conservator, you can expect to earn an average salary of £27,500, rising to £30,000 for senior conservator roles.
  • The salary range of all conservators who took part in Icon's research is £5,000 to £75,000. This takes into account all conservators, regardless of the number of hours worked, location and exact nature of the role, and shows the broad range of potential salaries.

Salaries can vary widely depending on your location, experience, type of employer and type of contract, nature of the work and number of hours worked. Income for self-employed conservators may differ.

Income data from Icon. Figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours are mainly 9am to 5pm, although you may do extra hours when working on site or finishing a project to deadline.

What to expect

  • Work is usually studio and laboratory-based with occasional field work. In museums and galleries, you'll typically supervise storage and display areas.
  • Jobs are often available on short-term contracts or on a freelance basis. There may be little continuity of work, as contracts can range from three months up to five years, and terms can vary widely. Some staff are employed on specific independently-funded projects.
  • It can be hard to find continuous work, especially during the early part of your career. You must be prepared to move to wherever you can find work.
  • You may need to travel with objects or collections, which can mean time away from home.
  • There are some opportunities to work abroad, particularly in Europe and the USA. Occasionally, work may be available on projects funded through international organisations, such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisations (UNESCO).

Qualifications

A degree in conservation, followed by work-based development, is a typical entry route into the profession. Most degree courses focus on conservation of fine art or objects and archaeology, rather than on areas such as furniture, stained glass, textiles and books.

Related subjects, usually in the arts or sciences, are also useful. These can include:

  • archaeology or archive and museum studies
  • art conservation or art history
  • ceramics and glass
  • chemistry, biology or biochemistry
  • fine art or visual art
  • materials science, technology and metallurgy
  • paper conservation or book arts
  • textile technology.

If your first degree isn't in conservation, you'll usually need a postgraduate degree in the subject. Postgraduate courses require at least a 2:1 degree, although some allow entry without a first degree if you have equivalent experience and skills. A-level chemistry or equivalent is required for entry on to some courses. Search for postgraduate conservation courses.

There are many disciplines of conservation and it's important to find out which you are most suited to. Before choosing a course, make sure that it meets your career needs and areas of interest. Also, visit conservation studios and talk to practising conservators.

Both undergraduate and postgraduate courses that teach Icon's professional standards in conservation are listed at Icon - Conservation Training.

You can also become a conservator via a degree apprenticeship, which is a work-based training route combining paid work with on-the-job training and academic study. Search for apprenticeships that teach Icon's professional standards.

It's also possible to enter the profession at technician level via work-based study. The Conservation & Collections Care Technicians Diploma provides the skills needed to work as a technician with museum collections, historic artefacts and works of art. It's flexible so that you can tailor the qualification to reflect your role.

Entry to areas of conservation using materials such as stone, large metalwork, archives or natural history tends to be via work-based development in the form of an apprenticeship or internship.

Skills

You'll need to have:

  • a strong interest in, and knowledge of, works of art and historical artefacts
  • an understanding of the importance of heritage conservation and its context
  • craft skills, including manual dexterity and good colour perception
  • observational skills
  • computer literacy
  • excellent communication skills, tact and diplomacy
  • analytical and problem-solving skills
  • patience and attention to detail
  • the ability to work to tight deadlines
  • good team work and collaborating skills
  • strong planning and organisation skills
  • a flexible and adaptable approach to work
  • self-motivation and the ability to manage an independent workload
  • business awareness in order to work to a budget and cost projects
  • administration skills to record and document work
  • tenacity and a commitment to the profession.

Work experience

Entry into the profession (and on to postgraduate courses) is competitive and you'll need relevant work experience. Make the most of your course and the contacts you make during your studies. Some courses have work placements during the summer, which will help develop your practical skills and develop your network of contacts.

Seek out voluntary opportunities to build your knowledge and skills and contact professional conservators in your area to ask if you can visit them or work shadow them. For advice on work placements, see the Museums Association. Becoming a student member of Icon and attending conferences and events can help you make new contacts.

Paid internship opportunities are available through the Icon Internship Programme (IIP). Internships involve work-based learning alongside experienced practitioners and help to bridge the gap between training and a first job for new conservation graduates. Work-based training placements are advertised by employers on the Icon website. Icon recommends that conservation graduate interns undertaking work-based training are paid £17,500 for a 12-month internship (£16,500 for conservation non-graduates).

Find out more about the different kinds of work experience and internships that are available.

Employers

Conservators are employed by museums and galleries in both the public and private sectors. These range from small, independent or specialist museums, which rely mainly on volunteers, to large national institutions, which employ large teams of specialist staff.

Typical employers include:

  • national museums and galleries, which receive central government funding
  • municipal organisations, which may fall under the leisure/cultural services department of the local authority
  • university galleries or museums
  • libraries and archives
  • independent organisations, which may have a more commercial emphasis and are likely to use freelance conservators
  • heritage bodies, such as English Heritage, Historic Scotland and the National Trust, which employ a small number of conservation staff
  • regimental museums and armouries
  • Historic Royal Palaces - an independent charity managing six unoccupied royal palaces
  • private conservation studios and practices.

If you're working as a self-employed freelance conservator, you may have any of the above as clients, as well as art dealers, auction houses, the antiques trade and private collectors.

Look for job vacancies at:

Vacancies may also be advertised on conservation course noticeboards. Course lectures may also have useful contacts.

Professional development

There's no formal structure to continuing professional development and most conservators learn on the job, building up experience through internships or working as an assistant to an experienced conservator to gain practical experience.

With experience, you can apply for Icon Accreditation to become an Accredited Conservator-Restorer (ACR). Achieving ACR shows that you've got a high degree of competence, as well as in-depth knowledge of the principles underpinning conservation practice. Icon accreditation is based on an in-depth peer assessment process, during which you must show that you've met the proficient level of Icon's Professional Standards.

You must be a pathway member of Icon to become accredited and will be supported by a mentor as you work towards the accreditation application and assessment process. As an ACR, you are eligible to join Icon's Conservation Register.

Continuing Professional Development (CPD) is an essential part of becoming and remaining accredited. CPD activities can include attending courses, conferences, seminars and other events, reading publications, undertaking teaching and training, and getting involved in specialist groups and networks.

Icon provides advice on training and CPD and has a directory of short courses and events. There may be grants available to support training and CPD.

Courses and events in specialist areas may also be available from relevant organisations, such as the:

Career prospects

Conservation departments in museums have been subject to funding cuts in recent years, with smaller, regional museums taking the brunt of the cutbacks. There are few permanent posts available, except in national museums, and many jobs are on fixed-term contracts, dependent on funding.

Competition for jobs is fierce with some work subcontracted out to private practices. However, the skills and expertise of conservators are still highly sought after by employers and there are more opportunities in project and private sector work.

Museum conservation departments may employ only one or two conservators, so even if you manage to gain a full-time permanent post you can expect only limited promotion prospects. However, promotion to higher grades may be possible in larger institutions such as the British Museum or The National Gallery. Such promotion tends to lead to management roles with little or no practical work.

Many conservators work either as self-employed freelancers or within private studios, and contract out their services. Networking skills, a proven track record and a portfolio of work are essential.

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