Frequently Asked Questions
What is conservation and how is it different from restoration?
Conservation's role is to preserve global material culture, whereas the goal of restoration is to make an object look like it did when it was new. A conservation treatment may certainly involve restoration. In other cases, it's more about stabilization--keeping an object from deteriorating, but still allowing it to show its age. Either way, conservation treatments are always done in tandem with other activities, such as examination, documentation, analysis, preventive care, and education. Professional ethical guidelines help conservators decide what's best for an object, ensuring that treatments are stable, reversible, and easy to detect. A distinction is often made between a conservator, who has the training and expertise to work with cultural materials in such a careful way, and a restorer, who may have a less methodical approach.
Why do conservators specialize in a particular area?
We specialize because there's simply too much to know about any given area to master them all! The most common specialties are objects, paintings, works on paper, textiles, furniture, photographs, and books. A conservator may also focus on a type of collection, such as modern and contemporary art or archeological objects, or specialize in preventive care.
Why is documentation important?
Conservation reports are like medical records for objects. They let caretakers be aware of treatment histories and deterioration patterns, which in turn helps them make well-informed decisions for the continued care of art and artifacts. This is especially important if an object ever needs to be re-treated by a conservator or is examined by an appraiser.
Do you give appraisals?
No, this requires the expertise of a certified appraiser. To find a qualified professional in your area, visit the American Society of Appraisers or the Appraisers Association of America.
Does conservation work change the financial value of an object?
Possibly, but it depends on many factors and must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis by a qualified appraiser. It is unlikely that an appropriate and well-documented treated would lower an object's value.
Are there any tests you can do to date or authenticate my artwork?
A conservator can often tell you a great deal about an object through examination and art historical research, but you would need to consult with a conservation scientist or similar specialist for concrete answers about dating and authenticity. These professionals use various analytical techniques to help answer these questions. Conservators work closely with such experts and would be able to point you towards the right person to help.
What does it take to become a conservator?
It takes a great deal of training, either through rigorous graduate degree programs or lengthy apprenticeships. Programs are quite selective, requiring applicants to have a background in fine arts, art history, and chemistry, as well as treatment experience. The programs take 2 to 4 years to complete, and incorporate coursework, hands-on training, and multiple internships into their curricula. Many conservators will undertake post-graduate fellowships to further their training. A listing of conservation graduate programs can be found here.
How did you get interested in conservation?
The summer before I started undergraduate school, an insightful coordinator at the Smithsonian's Behind-The-Scenes Volunteer Program noted my dual interests in art and science and placed me in a conservation lab. It didn't take me long to realize I had found my calling. I ultimately chose to specialize in objects because it encompasses such a wide variety of materials. I knew I would never be bored!
What's the most interesting object you've worked on?
One of the most unusual objects I've ever treated was a 140-year-old finback whale skeleton on display at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. It hangs from a very high ceiling, and I worked with a team of conservators up on a scaffolding to carefully clean and conserve it.