A career as a conservator is ideal for those passionate about history and with a strong commitment to preserving the past, so these remarkable collections can continue to educate and inspire future generations
At the heart of all conservators lies the desire to preserve historical objects, artefacts and cultural spaces. Many work within museums and heritage sites and they play a vital role in educating the public by using their training and knowledge to give valuable collections a new lease of life.
We spoke to four conservation experts for their advice on how to break into this competitive profession.
Why choose museum conservation?
'Conservation is a great bridge between the sciences and the arts. Conservators can find themselves the first person to touch a shoe last worn by a Roman soldier or standing on the decks of a 17th century warship,' says Jane Henderson, professor of conservation at Cardiff University. If these possibilities excite you then you should consider conservation as a career.
'Conservation incorporates art, craft, science and technology. Conservators have the opportunity to forensically examine objects and make discoveries about materials that add to the understanding of craftsmanship and art history,' says Sandra Smith, head of conservation and technical services at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A). 'When working in conservation, never a day goes by without you learning something new about collections and their makers.'
If your aspirations include wealth and power, museum conservation probably isn't the job for you, but if you want a fulfilling career working with interesting and unusual objects then job satisfaction is guaranteed.
'Working as a conservator with other people's cultural objects in museums is a privilege,' says Dr Dean Sully, associate professor in conservation at University College London (UCL). 'There is a tangible feeling of satisfaction once a conservation treatment has been completed and an exhibition successfully opened. You can see the effect of your work manifest in the response of the visitors to the collection.'
Job satisfaction isn't the only draw. Museums and heritage institutions rely heavily on the work of conservation professionals and as such, conservators are essential and continue to find employment despite funding cuts to the sector. Conservators are a vital part of the heritage industry - they alone have the knowledge and skills to research, handle, investigate, clean and care for artefacts. Without these skills, valuable cultural collections are put at risk.
How do I qualify as a conservator?
The majority of conservators have a related degree or Masters and to get onto a postgraduate conservation course you'll need a 2:1 and an A-level science qualification (preferably in chemistry).
There are plenty of courses to choose from - for example, the MSc Conservation Practice at Cardiff University. This hands-on, two-year conversion programme will see you spending a significant amount of time in the laboratory working on archaeological and historical artefacts. Industry professionals teach modules such as 'Essentials of Conservation', 'Museums' Collections Management' and 'Making Conservation Decisions'. Your final assessment will take the form of a dissertation.
'We provide a qualification that encompasses and links theoretical and practical skills, using critical thinking to equip students to operate as professional conservators in the heritage sector,' says Jane.
To be accepted onto the conversion course at Cardiff, you'll need either a first or 2:1 in any subject. However, a degree in a related subject such as archaeology, history, ancient history, conservation or the sciences would be useful. Tuition fees for year one of the course in 2022/23 are set at £10,700 for UK students.
Another option is the MSc Conservation for Archaeology and Museums at UCL. In 2022/23, UK students can expect to pay £12,900 to study this two-year course full time. 'The programme aims to provide students with an education in professional conservation and ensures that graduates are able to meet the challenges of a long-term career as a practicing conservator,' explains Dr Sully.
During the first year you'll develop an understanding of the intellectual issues relating to conservation research and practice through taught courses on material science, conservation processes and practice. You'll consider the structure, technology and deterioration processes of materials from which heritage objects are made, the theory of the techniques of conservation and the skills and knowledge required in the treatment of archaeological and museum objects. In year two, you'll undertake a ten-month internship in a museum or heritage institution.
In terms of professional conservation qualifications, The Institute of Conservation (Icon) provide the Professional Accreditation of Conservator-Restorers (PACR), which demonstrates that a conservator shows a high degree of competence, sound judgement and in-depth knowledge.
What skills do I need?
Conservation work combines academic knowledge of arts, crafts, materials science, anthropology, archaeology and art history with a variety of practical abilities. Working with your hands will be a daily feature of the job and Sandra advises developing your craftsmanship skills through activities such as needlework, wood carving and metalwork.
'Conservators must have good practical skills to handle and treat fragile and delicate materials, good colour matching skills to fill and colour losses and great innovation to discover new ways of mounting and displaying collections in exciting and creative ways,' she adds.
Soft skills such as good communication, attention to detail and excellent hand-eye coordination are essential. A positive attitude is also a plus. The best conservators are smart, dexterous problem solvers.
Securing relevant museum internships, work experience or volunteering is beneficial. Not only will these experiences help further your skills, they'll also help when applying for courses. Application processes for postgraduate programmes are competitive and work experience with museums and heritage institutions can go a long way to impressing course leaders. 'Get involved with a heritage site and try to volunteer there, it doesn't matter if it's helping out at a museum, country house or archive, any, and all, experience will be helpful,' Jane advises.
The V&A offers workplace studentships for emerging conservators engaged in a conservation training programme. 'Students work alongside conservators on V&A collections and contribute directly to the preparation of items for exhibitions. The V&A conservators provide training and mentoring in both practical and preventative conservation, developing your experience in the profession,' says Sandra.
Find out more about work experience and internships.
What museum conservation jobs can I do?
There are a number of career options for conservation graduates. Visit museum websites and read conservation blogs to get an idea of the area of conservation you'd like to work in.
Dr Sully highlights the opportunities for conservation graduates in both national and regional sites. Other typical employers include historic houses, galleries and conservation agencies. You can also move into academia and work in universities.
'It's common for early career conservators to work as project conservators on fixed-term contracts. Permanent staff jobs usually require three to five years of professional experience,' adds Dr Sully.
Graduates of the MSc Conservation Practice course at Cardiff have gone on to work for the Mariners' Museum and Park, The National Lottery Heritage Fund, the National Trust and the Tate Gallery.
You could also get involved in furniture conservation/restoration, bench conservation, working with objects or in preventative conservation/collection care work.
Career development is somewhat limited but still possible with the right amount of knowledge and experience. As careers progress, conservators may take on broader management or project management roles or even set up their own private conservation practices.
Larger museums, such as the V&A, have conservation departments and some graduates climb the ladder to lead these groups, but competition for posts is tough.
However, the majority of conservators prefer to stick to their roots in practical conservation, rather than move into senior heritage management, as increased responsibility often results in a decrease in practical work. Many develop their career as freelancers in the private sector, joining an existing practice or building their own.
Find out more
- For an insight into the types of careers available, see museum jobs.
- Discover what to do with a degree in archaeology, history or history of art.
- Search for job opportunities at the V&A Museum.