Art Conservation - Frequently Asked Questions

As an art lover, it's important to understand how to properly care for and preserve your beloved pieces. Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about art conservation, based on Google search questions and some curated knowledge from reputable conservation sources. The following Q&A is being constantly updated. I am open to edits and corrections as long as they come from a place of kindness :)

What is art conservation?

Conservation is the process of preserving and restoring works of art to their original condition. This involves a range of techniques, including cleaning, repairing damage, and stabilizing the piece to prevent further deterioration. Conservators are trained professionals who specialize in this field and work to ensure that art is preserved for future generations.

If you want to dig deeper, the term "art" conservator is highly misleading as it will mostly apply to conservators working in the fine arts - such as with paintings and sculptures.

However, conservators around the world specialise in a broad range of materials, each with its own difficulties and challenges. Thus, it is not uncommon for conservators to consult each other based on the materials they find on particular objects.

Some of the specialisations you may find (certainly not all) are:

  • Stone
  • Architectural
  • Natural history
  • Photograph
  • Book and paper
  • Textiles
  • Contemporary art
  • Digital media and audiovisual
  • Plastics
  • Ethnographic (generally related to historical and indigenous collections from around the world)
  • Archaeological
  • Metals
  • Preventive
  • Wood (even just waterlogged wood)
  • Glass and ceramics
  • Murals and frescoes
  • Mosaics
  • Furniture
  • Industrial machinery, trains, airplanes, tanks
  • Things as niche as clocks, globes, and model ships

How do I care for my art collection?

There are several steps you can take to properly care for your art collection:

  • Keep art out of direct sunlight, as UV rays can fade or discolor the piece.
  • Use LED lighting to avoid exposing your art to Infrared radiation.
  • Avoid placing art near sources of heat, humidity, or moisture, as these can cause damage.
  • Dust and clean your spaces regularly using a soft, dry cloth or a feather duster.
  • Handle art carefully and gently to avoid accidental damage.
  • If at all possible, keep your spaces clean to avoid pests. Pests such as moths, various beetles and other insects like silverfish will damage your objects, and in some cases, eat them completely.
  • If you need to move or transport art, do so with caution and use proper protective materials such as bubble wrap or acid-free tissue paper.

What is an art conservator?

An art conservator, or just a conservator, is a trained professional who specializes in the preservation and restoration of works of art. They use a range of techniques and materials to clean, repair, and stabilize art, with the goal of preserving it for future generations. Art conservators work in a variety of settings, including museums, galleries, and private conservation studios.

What is an art conservationist?

Beware the term "conservationist" as it is not the correct term to describe professionals who work in the care of heritage and art - and it will annoy conservators greatly.

Generally speaking, a "conservationist" is a person who is concerned about the environment, climate change, and pollution.

Conservationists versus Conservators
Conservationists and conservators are not the same career. In fact, in 2022, conservators spent a significant amount of time cleaning up after conservationists.

Terms for conservators will vary depending on countries and general usage. In general, correct terms for conservators are:

  • Conservator
  • Conservator-restorer
  • Restorer (Although this term is sometimes shunned in some countries as it may denote a more liberal, and often frowned-upon, approach to removing original materials.)

How do I find an art conservator?

When searching for an accredited conservator, it's important to do your research and ask for recommendations. Look for conservators who have received proper training and accreditation, such as those who are members of professional organizations like the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works or ICON UK. You can also ask for references from previous clients and check for reviews or testimonials online.

What is a preventive care conservator?

There is a specific branch of conservation these days which does not focus on a type of object or material, but rather on the conditions that surround objects.

You may also find it as Preventive conservation, also called preventive care, collections care, preventative conservation/care.

Preventive care and management focuses on evaluating and monitoring the 10 agents of deterioration framework as developed by the Canadian Conservation Institute.

The 10 agents are:

  1. Physical forces
  2. Thieves and vandals
  3. Fire
  4. WAter
  5. Pests
  6. Pollutants
  7. Light, ultraviolet and infrared
  8. Incorrect temperature
  9. Incorrect relative humidity
  10. Dissociation

It is the job of a collections care professional to evaluate the ways in which the 10 agents may be causing damage to a whole collection in order to implement protective measures that minimise damage over time.

In the case of preventive care, a professional will not be directly treating objects, but rather improving the conditions in which those objects live.

For more guidance on how to apply preventive care, check out this resource from English Heritage

Do you need to be a conservator to work with collections?

Nope, you most certainly don't have to be. People who work with collections may come from a diverse background and training programs. In Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums (GLAM), you may find:

  • Registrars and database specialists
  • Conservators
  • Archivists
  • Librarians
  • Preparators
  • Exhibitions officers
  • Curators
  • Facilities management and operations
  • Mountmakers
  • Educators
  • Biologists, chemists, physicists and other conservation scientists
  • Etc.

Can all art be conserved?

Not all art can be conserved, as some materials or techniques may be too fragile or unstable to be restored. In these cases, the focus may shift to preserving what remains of the piece and preventing further deterioration. However, with the right techniques and materials, many works of art can be successfully conserved and restored.

Some types of damage, such as fading due to light, are completely irreversible, so they once done, such damage cannot be undone even by the best practitioners.

What should I do if my art becomes damaged?

If your art becomes damaged, it's important to act quickly to minimize further damage. If the damage is minor, such as a small tear or scratch, you may be able to repair it yourself using conservation-grade materials.

This is not generally recommended and most conservators will discourage you from doing so as there are many physical and chemical reactions that you may not expect and which you will not be able to control. Many conservators in both private practice and museum jobs spend significant amount of time undoing previous treatments gone wrong. The damage is not always fixable.

If the damage is significant or you are unsure how to properly repair it, it's best to seek the assistance of a professional conservator who specialises in the material you have.

How do I become an art conservator?

For a more in-depth discussion on how to become an art conservator, please read this article Where to study art conservation - The ultimate guide.

Do I need to learn other languages to become an art conservator?

Not really, no. Programs will only require either the local language of instruction, and in some cases, English as well. Other than that, you do not need to have foreign language qualifications to study conservation at post-graduate level.

How much does it cost to study art conservation?

In my article Where to study art conservation - The ultimate guide, I have included a very long Excel table with over 70 programs around the world and as much information as we could get regarding pre-requisites, costs, location, etc.

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