How to get into museum conservation

Jemma Smith, Editor
July, 2016

You will need a scientific mind, a fascination with ancient artifacts and a desire to preserve the past for future generations to be successful in this highly skilled and rewarding role

Many conservators choose to work within museums or heritage institutions, as they're passionate about the preservation of historical objects, artifacts and cultural spaces. They play a vital role in educating the public by using their training and knowledge to give valuable collections a new lease of life.

But how do you break into this competitive profession? We asked three conservation experts for their advice.

To get onto a postgraduate course you’ll need a 2:1 and an A-level science qualification

Why choose museum conservation?

'Conservation is an exciting career that incorporates art, craft, science and technology. Conservators have the opportunity to forensically examine objects and make discoveries about materials which 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 you aspire to 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, lecturer 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.'

Conservation departments in museums up and down the country have been subject to funding cuts in recent years but the skills and expertise of conservators are still highly sought after by employers. Museums and heritage institutions rely heavily on the work of conservation professionals. 'Conservators are important to museums as they have the knowledge and skills to research, handle, investigate, clean, stabilise and care for artifacts. Without such skills museums would place their collections at risk,' explains Dr Chris Caple, senior lecturer in the department of archaeology at Durham University.

How do I get qualified?

The majority of conservators have a degree or Masters and to get onto a postgraduate course you'll need a 2:1 and an A-level science qualification (preferably chemistry).

There are plenty of courses to choose from, take the MA in Conservation of Archaeological and Museum Objects at Durham University for example. The two year course educates and equips students to be professional conservators. 'The first year is spent here at Durham and the second out on placement so students receive a balance of theoretical and practical skills,' says Dr Caple. 'The course ensures students are well prepared for employment and covers a range of different object types to build up a variety of experience.'

Another option is the MSc Conservation for Archaeology and Museums at UCL. '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 of this two-year course 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.

Search for postgraduate courses in conservation.

Application processes for postgraduate conservation courses are competitive and work experience with museums and heritage institutions can go a long way to impressing course leaders. The V&A offer 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.

The best conservators are smart, dexterous problem solvers

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,' adds Sandra.

Dr Caple emphasises the importance of soft skills such as good communication, attention to detail and excellent hand-eye coordination, a positive attitude is also a plus. 'The best conservators are smart, dexterous problem solvers.'

What jobs can I do?

There are a number of career options for conservation graduates. Sandra suggests visiting museum websites and reading conservation blogs to get an idea of the area of conservation you'd like to work in.

Dr Sully highlights the opportunities in national and regional museums and galleries throughout the UK and internationally. '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.'

Dr Caple points out a number of alternative career routes. 'The majority of graduates want to work as bench conservators with objects. Increasing numbers are involved in preventative conservation/collection care work. Some are drawn into curatorship but most try to stay within practical conservation.'

Career development is somewhat limited but still possible with the right amount of knowledge and experience. 'As careers develop conservators may take on broader management or project management roles or even set up their own private conservation practices,' explains Sandra. Larger museums, such as the V&A, will have conservation departments and some graduates could climb the ladder to lead these groups.

Increased responsibility often results in a decrease in practical conservation work, which could explain limited progression options. 'Few conservators are drawn into senior heritage management, perhaps they care too much about the collections,' adds Dr Caple.

Find out more