This is the latest post in our series on career advice for the aspiring archives professionals. Each edition features information and career advice from a different member of the Archives team, regarding what they do, how they got here, and how you can too. Check out our previous posts, and don’t be afraid to let us know who you would like to hear from next!
What does a conservator do?
A conservator cares for cultural heritage, and often for a specific subset of the items you might find in a museum, library, gallery, or archive. I am a book and paper conservator, and so my specialty is in caring for those materials to ensure that they can continue to be preserved, used, or consulted. Preserving these items might include making sure they are stored in appropriate conditions and housings, ensuring they are handled safely by researchers who come to consult them, and intervening when items become damaged. These interventions or treatments are the most visible aspect of my work. Treatments might involve mending a torn page or re-inserting a detached one, putting a disbound book back together into a functional volume, or relaxing and flattening a crumpled or rolled document with gentle humidity. Conservators investigate the materials these items are made from to help ensure that the treatments they carefully choose are appropriate; conservators also conform to professional guidelines, such as those in the United States which are established by the American Institute for Conservation. Another important aspect of conservation is documenting the conditions of items we treat before, during, and after any interventions with images and text. You can see some of the work I have done here at the Archives in posts I have written previously for this blog.
How did you choose a career in conservation?
I first became aware of and interested in the field of conservation by chance. As I finished up my undergraduate degree, I realized that I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. As a kid, I entertained ideas of writing fantasy novels for a living and then majored in English, but didn’t have a clear path forward. I knew I didn’t want to teach (but a big shout-out to all those teachers out there, especially in elementary schools) or go to law school (both archetypal pursuits for English majors) and wanted to do something that would engage my hands and my mind. A quirk of circumstances led me to two simultaneous experiences: working as an assistant in the university library’s special collections and taking the art department’s bookbinding course. As I learned to make books and became comfortable handling rare collections items, I discovered that the instructors for my bookbinding course were the library’s book conservators. They saw my interest in their work and encouraged me to investigate the field of conservation.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
If I had to choose, I would say first that the satisfaction of returning a book or document to its intended or whole state is a big factor. I love that sense of accomplishment that comes from mending something damaged or unusable. Another aspect of my job that I enjoy is the opportunity to work with collections that cover a vast swath of Smithsonian history—field notes from collecting scientists in places like the Philippines and the American Southwest, architectural plans for our iconic museum buildings, documents like James Smithson’s will or the Elizabeth Macie deed that underpin our institution—all of which are meaningful and significant in different but equally relevant ways.
What degree do you need to have?
Nowadays, a master’s degree is, generally speaking, an entry-level requirement for a conservator position. This degree demonstrates a baseline of knowledge, ability, and experience acquired by a recognized conservation educational establishment. Many conservation students come from art or art history backgrounds at the undergraduate level, but others might come from humanities or museum studies. I was an English major, and my interest in medieval and Renaissance literature helped guide me toward conservation.
There are several programs that train conservators; many of them require advanced chemistry courses and significant pre-program experience in internship or volunteer settings in order to create a successful application portfolio. In the United States and Canada, seven degree-granting programs are members of the Association of North American Graduate Programs (ANAGPIC): the University of Delaware at Winterthur, Buffalo State College, NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts, and Queen’s University in Ontario all provide training in art conservation; UCLA and the Getty offer a program in archaeological conservation; and Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania focus on architectural conservation and heritage planning (a list of all these programs, curated by AIC with links, can be found here). There are also many opportunities abroad, including courses in the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom, which is where I did my studies, at a small arts- and conservation-focused school called West Dean College. Regardless of the program, all offer instruction in conservation theory, practice, and materials science, and above all, practical experience conserving collection items.
What qualities are employers looking for in a conservator?
As I’ve stated above, a graduate qualification is usually the first prerequisite for conservation employment; this is where the necessary skills and knowledge to be a successful conservation professional are acquired. Some of these competencies include the knowledge of and ability to apply a wide range of appropriate conservation treatments, an understanding of applicable materials science considerations, and the high level of manual skills and dexterity that are essential to conservation work. In addition, a conservator should be detail-oriented and observant, have excellent communication skills (curators, librarians and archivists, registrars, and other associated colleagues all have a stake in conservation treatment and need to be informed and consulted), and committed to professional engagement, especially in the areas of continuing education and advocacy.
What recommendations do you have for a future conservator?
If you think you might be interested, start investigating and learn all that you can about the field. Local institutions sometimes offer visits to their conservation spaces, and others perform treatments in view of the public (the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is an excellent example of this, with a dedicated gallery where visitors can observe and ask questions). If you feel confident you would like to enter the field, as soon as you can, begin seeking out opportunities to gain experience. As an undergraduate, see if your university museum or library has conservators and whether they offer internships or work study opportunities.
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