Careers in Conservation

Become a Conservator : A Guide to Conservation Education and Training

Navigating the field of conservation is not easy. Below is our guide on to enter the field of conservation. It addresses who conservators are, career options in conservation, types of education and training, such as apprenticeships and graduate programs, undergraduate prerequisites for graduate programs, professional experience needed prior to entering a graduate program, a list of graduate programs in North America, studying abroad, post graduate education and training, and continuing professional development.

New to the field? Learn more about conservation from AIC’s Emerging Conservation Professionals Network (ECPN), which provides resources and information-sharing opportunities for early career conservators.

What is a Conservator?

Conservators are responsible for the long- term preservation of artistic and cultural artifacts.  They do this by analyzing and assessing the condition of cultural property, understanding processes and evidence of deterioration, planning collections care or site management strategies that prevent damage, carrying out conservation treatments, and conducting research in all of the areas previously indicated. Conservation is an interdisciplinary field involving studio practices, sciences, and the humanities. 

A conservator’s responsibilities may include:

  • examination procedures to determine the materials, method of manufacture, and properties of objects 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 appearance or function
  • advising on procedures for the safe exhibition and travel of cultural materials

Career Options in Conservation

Conservators often specialize in a particular material or group of objects such as paintings, art on paper, textiles, archives, books, photographs, electronic media, sculpture, decorative arts, architecture, built environments, archaeology, natural science, or ethnographic materials and work in a variety of environments including museums, regional facilities, heritage institutions, libraries, universities, archives, laboratories, government agencies, and private conservation enterprises.  Related job titles are conservation administrator, conservation educator, conservation scientist, conservation technician, and collections care/preservation specialist.

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.

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

Types of Education and Training

Apprenticeships and Internships

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.

North American Programs

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.

Undergraduate Prerequisites

Prerequisites for admission to graduate conservation programs include undergraduate coursework in science, the humanities (art history, anthropology, and archaeology), and studio art. Some schools consider previous working experience and gained expertise in conservation practice. Specific admission requirements differ and potential candidates are encouraged to contact the programs directly for details on prerequisites, application procedures, and program curriculum. With careful planning, an undergraduate curriculum can be tailored to satisfy the academic requirements of these graduate programs.

One full year each of general and organic chemistry with laboratory work is typically required. These courses should usually be freshman and sophomore level requirements for chemistry and biology majors. Supplemental studies recommended, but not always required, often include biology, biochemistry, geology, materials science, physics, and mathematics.

Broad based coursework in art history, anthropology, and archaeology must cover various cultural traditions and historical periods. At least four to six courses are typically required. Sample subjects include:

African art
American art
Ancient civilizations
Art and crafts of Native South Americans
Art in the East and the West
Baroque art
Early Renaissance art
Greek and Roman art
History of architecture
History of textile design

Indian art
Introduction to art history
Introduction to ethnic arts
Introduction to prehistoric archaeology
Medieval art
19th-century art
Oceanic art
Technology and culture
20th-Century Art
Studio Art

Formal course work in drawing, painting, photography, and three-dimensional design (including, but not limited to, ceramics, metalworking, sculpture, and textile art) may be required. Upon application to a graduate conservation program, candidates are expected to present a portfolio demonstrating manual dexterity, knowledge of techniques, and an understanding and affinity for art materials.

Reading proficiency in one or two foreign languages may be required.

Additional Coursework
Courses in museum studies, drafting, and library science may also be recommended.

Professional Experience
In addition to coursework, candidates to graduate programs are strongly encouraged to have had some conservation experience. Internships, volunteer, apprenticeship, or paid work in regional, institutional, or private conservation laboratories is appropriate. Involvement in supervised collection care projects such as collection assessments, rehousing, and exhibition design, as well as examination and treatment of individual artifacts is encouraged. Above all, applicants are expected to be thoroughly acquainted with conservation as a career option and to have a fundamental knowledge of conservation philosophy, ethics, and basic working procedures.

Many programs also require a personal interview in which candidates are usually asked to present a portfolio of art and conservation project work that demonstrates manual dexterity and familiarity with techniques and materials.

A limited number of Ph.D. programs have also been established for advanced study in conservation to prepare conservators with an interest in pursuing research in conservation or fields related to conservation.

North American Programs List

Institution Location Degree Length
Buffalo State College Buffalo, NY M.A., Certificate of Advanced Study in Art Conservation 3 years
Columbia University New York, NY M.S., Historic Preservation 2 years
Fleming College  Peterborough, ON Certificate in Cultural Heritage Conservation and Management  2 years
NYU/IFA  New York, NY M.A., Art History w/Certificate in Art Conservation 4 years 
Queens University  Kingston, ON M.A., Art Conservation 2 years 
UCLA/Getty Los Angeles M.A., Conservation of Archaeological and Ethnographic Materials
3 years
University of Arizona Tucson, AZ
M.A./M.S. in Related Course of Study and/or Graduate Certificate in Heritage Conservation 1-3 years
University of Pennsylvania  Philadelphia, PA M.S. in Historic Preservation w/Advanced Certificate in Architectural Conservation 2.5 years 
University of Texas Austin, TX M.S. in Historic Preservation 2 years 
Winterthur/University of Delaware Winterthur, DE  B.A*/M.S. in Art Conservation 4*/3 years 

The National Council for Preservation Education also compiles Guide to Academic Programs in Preservation Education, which they provided as a reference source to assist prospective students in identifying various historic preservation education degree programs in the United States. Likewise, the Society of American Archivists provides the most complete information about the many and diverse archival training programs available in their Directory of Archival Education.

Study Abroad

Degree programs, internships, and apprenticeships abroad offer excellent opportunities for students to explore a wider variety of education and training.  Students may expect to encounter somewhat different philosophies and procedures. ICON UK maintains a listings of programs in the United Kingdom, and ICCROM maintains an listings of international listing of programs worldwide.

Post Graduate Education and 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.

Institution Location Length
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 opportunitiesthroughout the year. You can also find conservation courses, conferences, and seminars on AIC's Community Calendar and on Conservation OnLine (CoOL).