The Job and What's Involved

Conservators/restorers are responsible for keeping works of art or other historic objects in good condition or working order.

They carry out both preventative and remedial work, and must understand why an object deteriorates as well as how to conserve/restore it. It is common to specialise in a particular area such as archaeology, furniture, paintings, textiles, books, industrial exhibits, ceramics or glass. Some conservators/restorers have a broader role and apply conservation techniques to a range of objects.

Typical work activities include:

  • Examining artefacts visually and scientifically to determine their condition.
  • Producing a detailed report on each object.
  • Photographing objects for permanent records and for presentation slides.
  • Proposing and estimating the costs of treatment.
  • Cleaning, reinforcing or repairing objects to stop deterioration and ensure future stability.
  • Restoring objects to preserve their physical and aesthetic properties.

Conservators/restorers use tools such as scalpels, swabs, magnifying glasses, small brushes, microscopes and x-rays, as well as carpentry and engineering tools. Chemical substances are also used.

They may also be responsible for the conditions in which exhibits are stored and displayed, and must monitor and control temperature, humidity and lighting.

Other areas of work may include:

  • Hosting tours for groups such as schools and colleges.
  • Giving talks and making presentations to amateur and professional audiences.
  • Supervising volunteers and junior conservation staff.
  • Liaising with museum curators and other colleagues.

Conservators/restorers who work for a heritage organisation, large museum or gallery usually work from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. Working hours for self-employed conservators/restorers, or those working for an independent company can vary, depending on the amount of work and deadlines. They may need to be quite flexible.

The job is normally based in clean, well-lit workshops or laboratories. Conservators/restorers usually sit at a workbench, although if they specialise in conserving stonework or other outside exhibits, they may be outdoors in all weather conditions.

Starting salaries are around £18,000 a year.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

There are over 6,000 organisations within the UK's cultural heritage sector. Typical employers include:

  • National museums such as the National Gallery, and Victoria and Albert Museum.
  • Local authorities that run local museums and galleries.
  • Central units and regional laboratories run by Area Museums Councils.
  • Heritage bodies such as the National Trust, English Heritage, the National Trust for Scotland and Historic Scotland.

Other opportunities in the conservation of archive materials are available in record offices, university or large public libraries and the Public Record Office. Increasingly, conservators/restorers are employed on a freelance or short-term contract basis.

Although there is a shortage of conservators/restorers with the necessary skills, there is also fierce competition for jobs. The number of full-time conservators/restorers has dropped in recent years, particularly in regional and provincial museums.

Vacancies are advertised by the Museums Association in the Museums Journal, through Iconnect, an online newsletter produced by the Institute of Conservation (ICON), and on specialist websites.

Education and Training

Conservators/restorers usually need a degree or postgraduate qualification. Those working in a technical capacity require appropriate skills, perhaps acquired through a placement scheme at a museum or private studio.

A wide range of degrees in humanities, such as history of art, and science, especially chemistry, are relevant. There are also specific degrees and postgraduate qualifications in conservation. A full range of courses is listed on the ICON website.

The minimum entry requirements for degree courses are usually two A levels/three H grades and five GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3), or equivalent qualifications such as BTEC/SQA national certificates or diplomas. Full-time degree courses last three or four years.

For postgraduate conservation courses, candidates usually need a relevant degree, for example in a science subject, fine art or history of art. Postgraduate courses usually last for one year and lead to a diploma or Masters degree.

The Diploma will give you the knowledge and skills that you will need for college, university or work in an exciting, creative and enjoyable way.

Previous work experience or voluntary work in a museum or other historic site is very useful. The National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies (NADFAS) runs a volunteer scheme. Many local museums or galleries welcome volunteers.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Most conservators/restorers enter the work at a junior level and learn on the job. Historic Scotland's Technical Conservation, Research and Education Group runs an annual internship grant scheme to help fund initial one-year internships for this purpose.

ICON runs an internship scheme that offers individuals without conventional conservation training the chance to enter the career. The ICON website has more details.

Conservators/restorers may work towards NVQ's/SVQ's in Cultural Heritage Operations (Level 3), Cultural Heritage (Level 4) and Cultural Heritage Management (Level 5).

Conservators/restorers with several years experience may apply for the Professional Accreditation of Conservators-Restorers (PACR) scheme, administered by ICON and leading to accreditation as a fully-qualified conservator/restorer.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

Conservators/restorers need:

  • Scientific and technical knowledge of conservation techniques.
  • An enquiring mind.
  • To appreciate the responsibilities and importance of their job.
  • To be good with their hands.
  • Patience.
  • The ability to undertake detailed work.
  • Excellent colour vision.
  • Good concentration skills.
  • To be aware of health and safety regulations.
  • To work well with different teams of people.
  • Good administrative skills.

Your Long Term Prospects

With experience, employees working for large organisations may be promoted to a senior officer or managerial role. Conservators/restorers in smaller companies may have to move on in order to progress.

Self-employed conservators/restorers may get the opportunity to work on more valuable objects or take on additional jobs as they build up their experience and contacts in the cultural heritage sector.

Get Further Information

Association of Independent Museums (AIM),
4 Clayhill Road, Gosport, Hampshire PO12 2BY
Tel: 02392 587751

Historic Scotland, Longmore House,
Salisbury Place, Edinburgh EH9 1SH
Tel: 0131 668 8600

Institute of Conservation (ICON), 3rd Floor,
Downstream Building, 1 London Bridge, London SE1 9BG
Tel: 020 7785 3807

Museums Association (MA),
24 Calvin Street, London E1 6NW
Tel: 020 7426 6970

National Association of Decorative & Fine Arts Societies (NADFAS),
NADFAS House, 8 Guilford Street, London WC1N 1DA
Tel: 020 7430 0730

Northern Ireland Museums Council (NIMC),
6 Crescent Gardens, Belfast BT7 1NS
Tel: 028 9055 0215

Scottish Museums Council, The Stack,
Papermill Wynd, McDonald Road, Edinburgh EH7 4QL
Tel: 0131 550 4100

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