Become a Conservator

A Guide to Conservation Education and Training

Conservators are responsible for the long- term preservation of artistic and cultural artifacts, often specializing in a particular material or group of objects. Conservation professionals work in a variety of environments and can obtain several related job titles.

  • Paintings
  • Art on paper
  • Textiles
  • Archives
  • Books
  • Photographs
  • Electronic media
  • Sculpture
  • Decorative arts
  • Architecture
  • Built environments
  • Archaeology
  • Natural science
  • Ethnographic materials
Work Environments
  • Museums
  • Regional facilities
  • Heritage institutions
  • Libraries
  • Universities
  • Archives
  • Laboratories
  • Government agencies

Career Options in Conservation

  • Conservator: A professional whose primary occupation is the practice of conservation and who, through specialized education, knowledge, training, and experience, formulates and implements all the activities of conservation in accordance with an ethical code such as the AIC Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice.
  • Conservation Administrator: A professional with substantial knowledge of conservation who is responsible for the administrative aspects and implementation of conservation activities in accordance with an ethical code such as the AIC Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice.
  • Conservation Educator: A professional with substantial knowledge and experience in the theory and techniques of conservation whose primary occupation is to teach the principles, methodology, and/or technical aspects of the profession in accordance with an ethical code such as the AIC Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice.
  • Conservation Scientist: A professional scientist whose primary focus is the application of specialized knowledge and skills to support the activities of conservation in accordance with an ethical code such as the AIC Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice.\
  • Conservation Technician: An individual who is trained and experienced in specific conservation treatment activities and who works in conjunction with or under the supervision of a conservator. A conservation technician may also be trained and experienced in specific preventive care activities.
  • Collections Care/Preservation Specialist: An individual who is trained and experienced in specific preventive care activities and who works in conjunction with or under the supervision of a conservator.

responsibilities might a conservator have?

  • Examination procedures to determine the materials, method of manufacture, and properties ofobjects or structures and the causes and extent of deterioration or alteration
  • Scientific analysis and research to identify historic and artistic methods and materials of fabrication, and to evaluate the efficacy and appropriateness of materials and procedures of conservation
  • Documentation procedures to record the condition of an object or site at a specific time, or before, during, and after treatment, and to outline treatment methods and materials in detail
  • Treatment, including interventive procedures, as well as passive measures to stabilize an artifact or retard its deterioration
  • Restoration to bring a deteriorated or damaged object or structure closer to a previous or assumed ppearance or function
  • Advising on procedures for the safe exhibition and travel of cultural materials

Types of Education and Training

Education and training for conservation careers should provide technical and scientific knowledge of materials and deterioration processes, develop appropriate aesthetic and perceptual abilities, and instill an essential ethical perspective.

Before the establishment of graduate degree programs in conservation, apprenticeships were the primary method of training, and apprenticeships and internships continue to be an excellent source of education and training. Today, graduate education has become the more recognized route into the profession.  A traditional apprenticeship refers to an in-depth, long-term training period.  A student may elect to pursue a traditional apprenticeship or series of apprenticeships as an alternative to a graduate program.  This approach often takes longer than a degree program to acquire comparable education.  To acquire a complete conservation education, the student must supplement practical training with readings, course work, and research.

The term internship refers to workplace training at any level of a conservator’s development. Introductory level internships, often referred to in the profession as pre-program internships, help prepare individuals for more advanced study.  Graduate internships are part of a degree program curriculum.
Graduate degree programs generally require two to four years of study.  North American education programs in the conservation of cultural property offer either a master’s degree in conservation or historic preservation or a master’s degree in a related discipline along with a certificate or diploma in conservation.  These programs require four to six semesters in residence (or the equivalent) and may also require summer internships.  Many of these programs require a full-time, internship in the final year in which students work under the guidance of experienced conservators.

Many graduate programs require the fulfillment of academic prerequisites, including courses in chemistry, in the humanities (such as art history, anthropology, architecture, and archaeology), and in studio art. Potential candidates should contact the programs directly for details regarding prerequisites, application procedures, and program curriculum. In addition to required course work, graduate programs strongly encourage students to obtain some conservation experience, which can be gained through an undergraduate introductory internship or fieldwork. Appropriate experience may include conservation work in regional, institutional, or private conservation laboratories. Consult AIC's Find a Conservator tool or Jobs, Internships, and Fellowships page to search for pre-program opportunities.

Post Graduate Education & Training
Many conservators have cited post-graduate fellowships as a valuable experience in their professional development. Such fellowships allow intensive research and practice or exposure to diverse professional staff or significant collections.

Getty Foundation  Los Angeles, CA           1 year 
Smithsonian/Museum Conservation Institute             Washington, DC   1 year 
Straus Center/Harvard University Art Museums            Cambridge, MA   1 year

Continued Professional Development
Due to rapid changes in each conservation specialty, practicing conservators must keep abreast of advances in technology and methodology.  Their knowledge and skills are expanded through reading publications, attending professional meetings, and enrollment in short-term workshops or courses. It is the responsibility of each conservator to take advantage of such opportunities and to contribute to them. The Foundation of the American Institute of Conservation offers many professional development opportunities throughout the year. You can also find conservation courses, conferences, and seminars on Conservation OnLine (CoOL).

New to the field?
Learn more about conservation from AIC’s Emerging Conservation Professionals Network (ECPN)