Works of art are valuable, not purely in terms of money, but in terms of their cultural importance. However, works of art are also fragile. If they are to be appreciated by future generations, they need to be looked after properly. This is where careers in art conservation and restoration become important.
When you hear the word ‘conservation’ you might think it’s all about preserving the environment. However, works of art and cultural artefacts are also susceptible to serious degradation. If you’ve ever seen an old book, its pages might look battered, brown and held together by a delicate piece of string.
Similarly, you might have seen old photographs that are now tinged with shades of sepia. Ever had your favourite item of clothing eaten by moths? Well, just consider how tasty an ancient tapestry might be to similar pests! Careers in art conservation and restoration are essential, and entirely dedicated to the preservation of art and cultural heritage.
What experience do I need to get into art conservation and restoration?
Careers in this area are multi-disciplinary and require professionals with backgrounds in fine art, sciences, archaeology and art history. People who work in this area tend to be real culture vultures with a strong mix of practical skills, scientific knowledge and a genuine passion for preserving art and artefacts.
What are the responsibilities of an art conservator?
The basic objective of all conservators is to keep artefacts, works of art, and other cultural articles in a state which is as close to its original condition as possible, for as long as possible. Many different restoration and conservation methods can be employed depending on the specific discipline. However, the general responsibilities of art conservators focus on examination, research, record keeping, and restorative and preventative care.
Chemical and scientific analysis is particularly important in modern conservation techniques, and many careers involve working in specialist conservation labs. Conservators now tend to use x-ray machines, microscopes and other specialist machinery to optimise examination activities. These guys also need to have a steady hand, design skills and artistic flair for carrying out any practical work.
All art conservation and restoration work needs to comply with some simple ethical guidelines. The conservator’s work needs to honour the piece of art itself. They don’t want to reduce its cultural significance and visual impact. Consequently, it is always the conservator’s goal to carry out minimal intervention.
The conservator also needs to work in conjunction with whoever has commissioned them to do the work. They need to honour their wishes, and keep them informed throughout the restoration process; therefore, all of the work that is done needs to be fully documented and recorded.
Furthermore, the conservator needs to consider that further conservation work might have to be done in the future, and should thus only use materials and methods that are potentially reversible and won’t hinder restorative work.
Preventative conservation vs. interventive conservation
Many specialist areas of art and conservation careers can be explored, such as paintings, book and paper, furniture, photographs, textiles, historic, architectural, and electronic media conservation.
Generally, art conservation and restoration work can be divided into two main strands:
- Preventative conservation
- Interventive conservation.
Preventative conservation is all about preventing degradation from happening. All cultural works can be detrimentally affected by the elements. The wrong temperature, over exposure to sunlight or high humidity levels can all damage works of art.
People that work in this area are thus tasked with ensuring that these cultural works are continuously stored in a controlled environment that reduces the damaging effects of the environment. Some environments are more difficult to control; for instance, outdoor sculptures are open to acidic rain and perhaps even graffiti.
People responsible for preventative conservation also need to monitor the works under their supervision, and identify when any restorative work needs to be done.
Interventive conservation is all about directly working with the cultural material. This can be incredibly challenging, and requires professionals with precise and refined practical skills to enable them to clean, repair, and replace parts of the cultural works. Depending on the magnitude of the specific project, this can be a painstaking and lengthy process. For instance, the last restoration project of the Sistine Chapel took ten years (between 1984 and 1994).
People who want to work in art conservation and restoration need to have patience, an eye-for-detail, scientific knowledge and a true passion for arts and cultural heritage. If you tick all these boxes then have a look at the following occupational profiles and see if you could do a better job than this misguided parishioner…