Museum: Conservator Job Description, Education, Training Requirements, Career, Salary, Employment

Job Description: Conservators manage, care for, preserve, treat, and document works of art, artifacts, and specimens tasks that may require substantial historical, scientific, and archaeological research. They use x-rays, chemical testing, microscopes, special lights, and other laboratory equipment and techniques to examine objects and determine their condition, their need for treatment or restoration, and the appropriate method for preserving them.

Training and Educational Qualifications: When hiring conservators, employers look for a master’s degree in conservation or closely related field, together with substantial experience. There are only a few graduate programs in museum conservation techniques in the United States. Competition for entry to these programs is keen; to qualify, a student must have a background in chemistry, archaeology or studio art, and art history as well as work experience.

Job Outlook: Faster than average employment growth is expected through 2016. Keen competition is expected for most jobs because qualified applicants generally outnumber job openings. Conservation program graduates with knowledge of a foreign language and a willingness to relocate will have an advantage over less qualified candidates.

Salary: Median annual earnings of museum technicians and conservators are $34,340. The middle 50 percent earn between $26,360 and $46,120. The lowest 10 percent earn less than $20,600, and the highest 10 percent earn more than $61,270.

Significant Facts:

•    Conservators usually specialize in a particular material or group of objects, such as documents and books, paintings, decorative arts, textiles, metals, or architectural material.

•    Most conservators work in museums, at historical sites, and in similar institutions; educational institutions; or in federal, state, or local government.

•    Prospective employers look for a master’s degree in conservation or closely related fields.

Did you have an internship in this field prior to starting your job?

I had several internships. I began my career with volunteer positions and art conservator technician positions two unpaid internships in the paper conservation labs at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and the Walters Art Gallery in Washington, DC before entering my graduate program in art conservation. These programs were quite difficult to get into (with only about four programs in North America that accept approximately 10 students out of 100 applicants). I was accepted to graduate school after those internships, which I believe were crucial to my acceptance. I then had two summer internships as well as an 11-month internship in my third year of graduate school. I spent my summers interning at the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Hagley Museum in Winterthur and the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal. My third year internship was at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

Do you know of which companies have the best internships in this field that are known to help launch a successful career?

The most important thing for an internship is that the conservator you work for be respected and in good standing in the field. It doesn’t matter whether he or she is in private practice or working in a museum, but it is good to get experience with both.

Where are the best cities to live to find jobs like yours?

Conservators (and conservation opportunities) seem to be clustered in three locations in the U.S.: New York, LA and Washington, DC. Outside these areas, we tend to be more spread out. In terms of actual numbers, these three areas are the easiest to find opportunities. However, if you plan to go into private practice, you may find that you can be a big fish in a small pond in other areas of the country.

What is your typical day like?

I work two and a half days per week and my days vary. I might put a print in a humidity chamber to prepare it for bathing in the afternoon. While that is humidifying, I might make a batch of wheat starch paste and mend another drawing or print. When the first print is ready, I spend an afternoon bathing it, allowing time in between washings by working on other objects. Or I might have some photography to do. I take color slides of all my objects before and after treatment for documentation. Because I don’t have a permanent setup for photography, I tend to do it in large batches so it takes most of the day. I also see clients by appointment. Most of my clients come to me and I set aside time to look at their objects and discuss the treatment with them.

What are your job responsibilities?

As a private conservator working alone, I do everything administrative and treatment.

What is your favorite part of your job?

I actually enjoy most of it but the treatment part is the most satisfying. I love starting treatments but have a hard time declaring them finished; I just don’t want to let go and declare it done.

What do you dislike about your job?

I miss having colleagues. I’m pretty sociable and used to enjoy having a cup of coffee in the mornings with co-workers. My dream would be to have a studio outside my home with one or two other conservators.

Have you had any turning point or “light bulb” moments in your career that have helped you get to where you are today?

The original “light bulb” came at the end of my freshman year when a co-worker at my part time job told me she wanted to be an art conservator. I’d never heard of such a job and it really fired my imagination. My second “light bulb” was probably when I got back from Europe and realized I wanted to get myself on track toward pursuing a future in art conservation. And finally, there was the moment when I realized that I wanted to go to grad school rather than take the much longer apprenticeship route into the field.

How did you know you wanted to pursue this career?

My original decision to pursue this career was actually pretty flaky in retrospect. I heard about the field and just decided it was for me. What I’ve often told people since then is that I like this field because it allows me to use both my hands and my brain. I like the satisfaction of actually seeing something improved and made better. And history and art are both valuable to me.

What do you consider your greatest professional accomplishment?

Just getting into and through the program was an accomplishment. My favorite accomplishment was the “Chinese Paper Project.” I took a collection of ethnographic paper objects, most of which had never been touched some of these objects were still in the original mailing containers from when they were collected in the field and got the whole thing in much better shape. I started by surveying the collection (their existing database was not terribly useful; it was inaccurate and incomplete) and determined which objects needed to be re-housed and which needed treatment. Then I carried out all the re-housing and most of the treatment. That collection was in such better shape after I was through with it what a great feeling! There have been other individual treatments that have given me great satisfaction because I loved the object or it was an interesting or challenging treatment.

If you weren’t doing this job, what similar careers might you consider?

Actually, I went through a period a couple years ago when I thought about leaving the field. I briefly considered whether I wanted to go into something food related. I love baking and cooking.

To what professional associations do you belong and what professional publications do you read?

I belong to the American Institute for Conservation (our national organization), the Washington Conservation Guild (regional affiliate), and The Institute of Conservation (a European organization based in the UK), International Institute for Conservation (AIC’s parent organization) and the International Council of Museums. Several Internet sites I visit are Conservation Online (palimpsest.stanford.edu) and the Ink Corrosion Web site (knaw.nl/ecpa/ink/).

What advice do you have for others who would like to pursue this career?

Don’t take your application to the programs lightly. Assume that you may apply more than once before getting in. Understand that you are giving three years of your life to the program when you do get in you cannot do this part-time and they don’t want you to have a life outside of school: Some of my classmates were separated from their families during this time and got no sympathy from their professors for this. It was rough.

Getting as much experience with different conservators as possible is very, very important. For one thing, this will tell you whether you really want to be in this field. This is a career that does not pay well you do it because you love it. And finally, be flexible. You never know which experiences will be truly valuable.