Conservation Technician

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Conservation Technician


Eventually, everything deteriorates. Exposure to sun, wind, rain, air and the human touch can cause everything to break down eventually. So how is it that you can go to an art gallery and see paintings from hundreds of years ago? How can we look at ancient pottery and clothing at a museum? It's because of the highly skilled, well-trained individuals who work to preserve the artifacts and artwork, preventing them from deteriorating even more.

Conservation technicians can preserve and repair anything. Books, paintings, clothing, grave stones, photographs, even records and tapes can be prevented from disintegrating. Unlike restorers, who attempt to make an artifact as good as new, conservators work instead to keep an object in its present state.

Conservation technicians are not using magic. There are in fact scientists, who know a lot about the power of chemicals, sunlight, and humidity. Working with a team of conservators and other technicians, they examine a new acquisition to the museum or gallery, and determine where it was made, when it was made, and what it is made of. Sometimes, this calls for extensive research, including using various technologies, such as microscopy (microscopes), radiography (x-rays), and chemical analysis, to come to conclusions.

Once they determine the history and composition of the artifact, they can begin treating it. They document all the steps they take, so future conservators and historians will know when changes were made to the artifact, and what those changes consisted of. The idea is to preserve the artifact without interfering with it too much. Good conservation technicians will be able to preserve the artifact without imposing noticeable changes to it. Often conservation technicians will specialize in one area of conservation, and become experts in some form of preservation, such as textile, metal or ceramic.

Conservation technicians also monitor cases and galleries for moisture, direct sunlight and temperature. They keep complete records of all conservation projects, as well as notes about recommended storage and travel procedures for the pieces in the collection. Conservation technicians are important to our sense of self and purpose. They preserve the tangible objects which link us to our pasts, without which it may be difficult to plan for the future.
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  Interests and Skills  
Conservation technicians need to be patient, firm and decisive individuals with good communication skills. They require good writing ability, as well. An open cultural outlook is important, as are some foreign language skills. They should have good eyesight, be able to lift heavy items, and have good manual dexterity. They should have a love for art, history, and an understanding of various styles, genres and time periods. Artistic as well as scientific skills come in handy in this line of work. A sensitivity to both the chemical composition, as well as the artistic qualities of an object, are important.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Research history of the artifact to be worked on
  • Take samples and/or carry out tests on artifact
  • Treat artifact with chemicals
  • Record of all decisions and the treatment procedure
  • Demonstrate conservation techniques to volunteers and community agencies
  • Test and assess new treatment methods
  • The typical day for the conservation technician will involve a lot of research, working closely with artifacts and acquisitions. The day will be spent in labs, libraries or consultation meetings with other conservators, curators and technicians. The conservation technician will spend some of each day writing up findings and recording preservation techniques. The day will not involve much travel, unless to visit other sites where art and artifacts need examining, or to travel to a conference to learn about new conservation techniques.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Conservation technicians can work anywhere there are museum and art pieces. Conservation technicians may work in large government museums and art galleries, which have their own conservation departments. Smaller museums, galleries, private owners or businesses will not have conservation technicians on staff. They can find conservation technicians who have private practices, or take their art to conservation labs. They can also work for art or antique dealers, galleries and auction houses.
  • Generally, they work in a lab, studio or office and have regular hours. They can be exposed to dangerous chemicals, and must follow safety precautions.

  Long Term Career Potential  
Conservation technicians can work their way up to supervisory roles within the conservation department, or find different work with museums or galleries as interpreters, exhibit consultants or researchers. They can find work with various governmental departments. They can also open up their own private conservation agencies. They can become freelance researchers, appraisers, and consultants for lobby groups, Native leaders, and writers of historical novels, television, and film scripts. They can also become art teachers, open galleries, or become artists or art dealers.

  Educational Paths  
Most people interested in working as conservation technicians finish a bachelor's degree in some sort of combination of fine arts and science, and then learn conservation skills during two- to four-year postgraduate programs. University or college programs in photography, computer studies and history will also benefit the conservator-to-be. There are also a few technician courses offered with community colleges.

But a degree is not the only thing they will need in order to get a job. Many interviewers ask to see a portfolio of work, including painting, drawing and sculpture. They also look for people with a background in art galleries and museums, so you may want to start volunteering now.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition,
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002,

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