Museum/gallery conservators care for cultural collections by applying scientific methods to preserve and restore artefacts. Their work mainly involves monitoring and controlling the environment in which collections are stored or displayed to prevent deterioration. They may also restore individual objects directly.

Conservators may be involved in conservation science and preventive conservation and may manage laboratories or have individual research interests.

Most conservators are self-employed and work on a freelance basis.

Types of museum/gallery conservator

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

  • archaeology;
  • ceramics and glass;
  • furniture;
  • gilding and decorative surfaces;
  • historic interiors;
  • metals;
  • paintings;
  • paper and books;
  • photographic materials;
  • stained glass;
  • stone and wall paintings;
  • textiles.

Responsibilities

The actual work carried out by conservators can vary depending on the role, but may include:

  • examining artefacts, both visually and using scientific tools such as x-rays, infrared photography and microscopic analysis to determine the extent and causes of deterioration;
  • maintaining full conservation records by writing up notes on the object's condition and any previous restoration work that has been done;
  • producing a visual record of the object for identification purposes and to illustrate its condition;
  • monitoring and recording display and storage conditions with the aim of keeping objects in a stable condition;
  • proposing and estimating the costs of treatments to halt decay and reveal the true nature of objects;
  • debating with colleagues to justify a proposed treatment regime;
  • organising the logistics of long-term projects and collaborating with other conservators in person and by email;
  • working out creative solutions to clean, support and repair sensitive objects;
  • using a range of instruments such as scalpels, cotton swabs, dental and carpentry tools, and solvents/adhesives;
  • recreating historically accurate finishes, such as mixing traditional paints from scratch;
  • developing and maintaining appropriate standards within the specialist area;
  • keeping up to date with the latest conservation techniques and practices, through research and training.

Other areas of work may include:

  • hosting laboratory or site tours for school groups and other visitors;
  • delivering talks and presentations to amateur and professional audiences;
  • supervising volunteers, interns, junior conservation staff and students;
  • liaising with museum curators and other colleagues and sometimes helping to set up exhibitions;
  • advising other organisations on conservation issues;
  • accompanying objects in transit to other locations;
  • handling fragile or decayed objects found during work in the field and on archaeological excavations.

Salary

  • The average salary of a junior conservator is £26,500. The Institute of Conservation (Icon) recommends that the minimum salary for entry-level conservators should be £24,648.
  • For a middle-ranking conservator, the average salary is £27,500, while a senior conservator earns on average £30,000.
  • The total salary range of all conservators who took part in the research is from £5,000 to £75,000. This will be dependent on amount of hours worked, location and exact role but it does demonstrate that there is a broad range of potential salaries.

Pay scales and terms and conditions vary depending on the employer. For example, national museums appoint on the basis of Civil Service contracts, while local authority museums use local government terms and conditions. Self-employed conservators may earn more.

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

Working hours

Working hours are mainly 9am to 5pm, with the possibility of some 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, supervision of storage and display areas is normal.
  • Museum conservation staff are often employed on short-term contracts or as self-employed freelancers. 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.
  • Finding continuous work can be difficult, especially during the early part of a career. A conservator must be prepared to move to wherever work can be found, which can impact on partner/family relationships.
  • Those who choose to become freelance after working within the public sector need to ensure they have the necessary skills to enable them to run a business.
  • Travel within a working day, absence from home overnight and overseas work is occasionally required. Conservators sometimes travel with objects or collections, which can mean up to a week away from home.

Qualifications

A degree in conservation followed by work-based development is a typical entry route into museum/gallery conservator roles.

Most degree courses focus on conservation of fine art or objects and archaeology. In general, there is very little conservation training in areas such as furniture, stained glass, textiles and books.

It is also possible to enter the profession with a degree in a related subject, usually in the arts or sciences. In particular, the following subjects may be helpful:

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

A relevant postgraduate qualification is essential if your first degree is not in conservation. Postgraduate courses normally require at least a 2:1 degree, although some allow entry without a first degree if you have equivalent experience and skills. Search for postgraduate conservation courses.

A-level chemistry or equivalent is required for entry to some postgraduate courses.

Courses may be generalist or may enable you to specialise in a certain subject area, such as paper, painting, textiles or ceramics conservation. A directory of full-time and part-time accredited postgraduate courses can be found, along with details of potential sources of funding, on The Institute of Conservation (Icon) website.

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.

Before applying to postgraduate courses, it is important to visit conservation studios, talk to practising conservators and work shadow if possible. There are many disciplines of conservation and it is important to find out which you are most suited to.

Science is an increasingly important aspect of conservation work and many candidates for courses have already achieved the distance-learning module Chemistry for Conservators, run by International Academic Projects.

Skills

Conservators need to show evidence of the following:

  • a strong interest in and knowledge of art/historical artefacts;
  • manual dexterity and good colour perception;
  • computer literacy;
  • excellent communication skills and the ability to make presentations to a range of audiences;
  • an investigative nature, together with problem-solving skills;
  • patience and a methodical approach;
  • the ability to work to tight deadlines, sometimes under pressure;
  • good teamworking skills;
  • strong planning and organisation skills;
  • self-motivation and the ability to manage an independent workload.

Work experience

Relevant experience is vital for entry to the profession. Opportunities are available through The Institute of Conservation - Internships funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Internships involve work-based learning alongside experienced practitioners and help to bridge the gap between training and a first job for new conservation graduates.

The internships also provide opportunities for those without conventional conservation training to enter the workforce. Icon recommends that interns undertaking work-based training are paid £16,000 for a 12-month internship, or £8,000 for a six month one.

Work-based training placements are advertised by employers on the Icon website. Members who are searching for a placement can advertise their training needs as well as view employer placements.

Membership of Icon is useful for showing your commitment to the profession. Student membership is available to students and trainees.

For advice and information on finding relevant voluntary opportunities, see Museums Association - Volunteering.

The Museum Association also produces a Museum and Galleries Yearbook, which provides contact details of UK museums and galleries and can be useful when making speculative applications.

Employers

There are more than 2,500 museums and galleries in the UK. These range from small, independent or specialist museums, which rely mainly on volunteers, to large national institutions, which employ large teams of specialist staff.

There are museums and art galleries in both the public and private sectors. 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;
  • a university gallery or museum;
  • independent organisations, which may have a more commercial emphasis. They are unlikely to employ permanent conservation staff, but may have specific items treated by a freelance conservator as necessary;
  • heritage bodies, such as English Heritage and the National Trust, which employ a small number of conservation staff;
  • regimental museums and armouries;
  • Historic Royal Palaces - an independent charity managing England's unoccupied royal palaces;
  • private conservation studios.

Self-employed freelance conservators may have any of the above as clients and may work for art dealers, auction houses, the antiques trade and private collectors.

Conservation departments in museums have been severely cut back in recent years. With the exception of national museums, there are few full-time (and even part-time) permanent posts for conservators in museums. Where there are vacancies, competition will be fierce.

Smaller, regional museums have taken the brunt of the cutbacks. In some instances, conservation laboratories have been closed and replaced with area services that then subcontract the practical conservation work to private practices. However, there have been corresponding increases in the availability of project and private sector work.

Look for job vacancies at:

Get more tips on how to find a job, create a successful CV and cover letter, and prepare for interviews.

Professional development

There is no formal structure to training and most conservators learn on the job, initially taking one-year internships or working as an assistant to a fully experienced conservator to gain practical experience.

Following the completion of the Heritage Lottery-funded work-based training bursary scheme, The Institute of Conservation (Icon) has launched a new conservation internship programme which, using the HLF framework, provides support and guidance to employers and helps them source funding.

Substantial work experience is needed before a conservator is considered competent. The main professional qualification for conservators is the Professional Accreditation of Conservators-Restorers (PACR) scheme.

It ensures that a conservator is a fully qualified and capable professional, applying a common standard across the profession regardless of specialism.

The PACR is usually applied for after five years' experience for those with a conservation degree or postgraduate conservation qualification (or after eight to ten years' experience working in conservation, including practical training). To apply you need to be a member of one of the following:

  • Archives and Records Association (ARA);
  • British Horological Institute (BHI);
  • The Institute of Conservation (Icon).

Icon also provides advice about training and professional development, including a directory of short courses.

Other specialist professional qualifications are available, including fellowship or membership of:

Career prospects

It is usual for people to spend several years undertaking internships and short-term contract work before gaining a permanent museum/gallery position.

There has been a move within the industry towards more short-term contracts and fewer permanent positions. If you are keen to improve your promotion or salary prospects you may therefore need to be prepared to move jobs and sometimes relocate.

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.

Promotion to higher grades may be possible in larger laboratories, for example, in national institutions such as:

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 for this type of work.

Membership of a professional body will offer opportunities to network, for example at seminars and conferences, and to enhance skills through sharing knowledge and continuing professional development (CPD). See The Institute of Conservation (Icon).

Information on the businesses of accredited conservator-restorers in the UK and Ireland is provided by the Conservation Register.

There are some opportunities to work abroad, particularly in Europe and the USA. Opportunities are listed at The International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.

Occasionally, work may be available on projects funded through international organisations, such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).