How to get into museum conservation

Jemma Smith, Editor
January, 2020

If you have a passion for history and for preserving the past for the enjoyment and education of future generations, a career as a conservator could be a perfect match

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 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 conservation experts for their advice.

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,' say professor in conservation Jane Henderson and professor of conservation David Watkinson, both of 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 career 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, senior 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.'

Job satisfaction isn't the only draw. Museums and heritage institutions rely heavily on the work of conservation professionals and as such, conservators are in high demand 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 course you'll need a 2:1 and an A-level science qualification (preferably chemistry).

There are plenty of courses to choose from - for example the MSc in Conservation Practice at Cardiff University. This hands-on, two-year 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,' say Jane and David. To be accepted onto the course you'll need either a first or 2:1 in a related subject such as archaeology, history, ancient history, conservation or the sciences. In 2020/21 tuition fees cost £9,950.

Another option is the MSc Conservation for Archaeology and Museums at UCL. In 2020/21 UK and European Union (EU) students can expect to pay £11,830 to study the course. '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.

The Institute of Conservation (Icon) provide the Professional Accreditation of Conservator-Restorers (PACR), a professional qualification, 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 and David advise.

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 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.

With 2,500 museums in the UK, 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 Council of British Archaeology, Heritage Lottery 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.

For an insight into the types of careers available with museums, see museum jobs.

Find out more

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