The Conservation Starter logo with crossed swab and scalpel
The Conservation Starter logo white with crossed swab and scalpel

WHAT IS A CONSERVATOR?

WHAT IS A CONSERVATOR?

AKA A HERITAGE CONSERVATOR / ART CONSERVATOR / MUSEUM CONSERVATOR?

AKA A HERITAGE CONSERVATOR / ART CONSERVATOR / MUSEUM CONSERVATOR?

Who are the people that make objects last? Who are the people behind the scenes, behind the gloves, that get to touch and see objects in ways that not many people get to do? We are conservators (not conservationists or preservationists)! Watch the video above to find out more.

A conservator is a trained professional whose job is to care for, protect, and safeguard cultural material. Basically we make things last. We’re sometimes known as object doctors, magicians, and glorified cleaners. But often we are not known about at all.

 

Conservators manage physical changes - like a ceramic pot breaking or a paper object being torn. We also manage chemical changes - like an old photograph that discolours over time, or an old newspaper clipping that becomes yellow or brittle. There are many factors that cause deterioration, including the materials an object is made from, natural disasters, pests and improper storage.

 

Conservators follow codes of ethics and codes of practice that are upheld by national or international conservation bodies to look after collections and individual items.

 

What do conservators look after?

Conservators can work with public collections, private collections and individual items that are privately owned.

 

The items we work with can be immovable cultural heritage like buildings, monuments and cave paintings. However, more often we work with movable cultural heritage. These are items typically collected galleries, libraries, archives and museums. Things that can still be quite big - like ships and lighthouses - but also really small things like miniature books and coins. We work with all types of materials – anything that humans have used or created. This includes paintings, glass, metals, ceramics, books, paper, photographic materials, plastics and even time-based media or things that are ‘born digital’.

 

Conservators typically specialise in different material types. Every material type is manufactured, and deteriorates, in very different ways. Another form of specialisation for conservators is in a particular function. For example an exhibition conservator, preventive conservator or conservation scientist.

 

Where do conservators work?

Conservators can work in galleries, libraries, archives and museums. Sometimes huge national ones like the British Museum, the National Library of Australia, the Smithsonian in the U.S. We also work in smaller institutions - state-based ones or even small regional institutions. You can also find us in private practice where we work directly with the public to make sure their treasures are looked after or with institutions to help them conserve their collections.

 

You find conservators in conservation laboratories that are similar to scientific laboratories. The labs are filled with chemicals and scientific equipment, as well as weird and wonderful tools that we borrow from every other industry.

 
 
Lucilla Ronai's paper conservation tool box and tools

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