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What They Do

Museum Technicians and Conservators Career Video

Insider Info

What do the Sistine Chapel, the Statue of Liberty and Leonardo da Vinci's Virgin and Child have in common? The Sistine Chapel was tarnished by centuries of candle soot and dust. Pollution was eroding the Statue of Liberty. A madman fired a shotgun into the heart of da Vinci's masterpiece.

All these famous works were given new life by the art-world professionals known as restorers or conservators.

As you might guess from their titles, these people conserve and restore art and other historic works.

"An object is a piece of the past that survived," says Christopher Tahk, an art conservation instructor at Buffalo State College. "A conservator gets to look at and deal with that item like no one else does."

Up to this century, art restorers simply considered how an item looked. Today, art restorers carefully consider the soundness and long-term benefits of their restoration techniques.

As conservators, they seek to preserve an item in its present state. As restorers, they seek to return an object to its original state. It's a subtle but important difference.

Conservation requires creating a controlled environment around an item. Pollution, humidity and changing temperatures can cause some items to deteriorate.

Conservators and restorers have to know what conditions offer the best protection. They also have to know what chemical treatments can stop the work from corroding, discoloring or disintegrating.

Before deciding whether to conserve or restore something, restorers have to examine it to see how it was made, what it was made of and what condition it's in. Often, this requires extensive research to identify historic and artistic materials and methods.

Conservators use microscopy, radiography and chemical analysis to investigate the history and composition of an item.

Any treatment or restoration of a work has to be carefully documented. For historical authenticity, restorers don't want future generations to mistake their corrective work for part of the original. The condition of articles is carefully recorded before, during and after treatment.

Conservators and restorers tend to develop a specialty. It requires different knowledge and skills to conserve or restore paper, metal, textile, glass and ceramics.

Most conservators work with public collections in art galleries and museums. Many of these institutions have their own conservation departments. Larger centers even have separate departments for different specialties.

Smaller institutions don't have conservation facilities or staff. They contract conservation work out to individuals in private practice or regional conservation laboratories. Conservators also work for private collectors, art and antique dealers, galleries and auction houses.

Conservators and restorers with larger institutions work an average workday. Conservators in private practice work whenever a job is available.

Not every day is spent interacting with famous or breathtaking works of art, says Barbara Keyser, an art conservation instructor. "There is quite a bit of routine," she says. "You have to spend a lot of time examining objects coming in and out of the museum on loan."

At a Glance

Conserve and restore art and other historic works

  • Most conservators work with public collections in art galleries and museums
  • You have to know what conditions offer the best protection
  • A postgraduate degree in conservation and restoration is required for this career


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