Museum conservators document, restore and preserve artifacts that are on display in museum exhibits. They work in museums, archives, educational institutions, and other places that house important artifacts for the researchers and members of the public. They use chemical and physical tests to determine the age and make up of different artifacts and use problem-solving to determine how to restore and preserve the objects as well as estimate how much it will cost the institution to make those necessary preservations. Conservators also train and teach museum curators and technicians, as well as give tours and provide research assistance to museum visitors.
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Museum conservators put together exhibits at galleries and museums by selecting, installing and assembling pieces to be put on display in exhibitions. Conservators design the layout of the exhibitions and carefully find and correct any problems with the exhibits before it is opened to the public.
When it is time for the objects to be taken off display at the museum, conservators are responsible for ensuring each item is accounted for and packed carefully for shipping or storage.
Museum conservators work with artifacts within the areas they specialize in. Some may work to preserve and prepare a collection of books and documents, while others may restore and preserve valuable paintings from around the world. For conservators who work in museums of natural science, a major part of their position is to create and construct precise skeletal mounts for fossils and life-sized replicas of specimens.
Conservators preserve their artifacts by ensuring the light, temperature, and humidity levels stay regular. They also clean the artifacts with carefully chosen cleansers that are best for each material, whether they are made of fabric, metal, paper, glass, pottery, wood or stone. Conservators have the knowledge to make educated decisions about the care and preservation of even the most delicate, ancient artifacts, and when there are questions about these techniques, they must test different temperature settings and other conditions to ensure the artifacts are safe in the display environment.
When restoration and preservation are necessary for artifacts before they can be shown within the museum walls, conservators must be able to accurately estimate the total cost of these tedious projects. The estimates are based upon examinations of the artifacts. Museum conservators carefully study the artifacts to determine their age, as well as precisely what they are made of. This often involves testing of the physical or chemical nature.
Museum conservators are responsible for supervising curators and other museum technicians. They assist their subordinates in properly displaying artifacts within the exhibits. Museum conservators must carefully document each item and its whereabouts as they are the professionals that are responsible for the artifacts – no matter how many other hands have touched them. Conservators assign each artifact with a number, and document the condition of each item with great precision.
When they are not testing artifacts or restoring them to their original splendor, museum conservators often give tours of the exhibits, and present special programs to the public. They also spend time teaching and training subordinates with programs they have created themselves after evaluating the educational needs of these employees, and then build structured teams of employees to handle tasks effectively, putting team members into groups where they can shine. Museum conservators also take charge of scheduling, from the work schedules of curators and technicians, to the scheduling of public events.
Museum conservators are more likely to be hired with a graduate degree, such as a master’s in conservation, library science, or history. For conservators who wish to work around fine art, a master’s in studio art or art history is very well suited for the position. Most universities offer undergraduate and graduate degrees in the areas of history, library science, art history, and studio art; but very few offer programs directly related to museum work.
Like many other jobs in this field, institutions take very kindly to applicants who have on-the-job experience. This can be attained while a student finishes their education by applying for internships within the field the student wishes to work in. Not-for-profit organizations, museums and conservators who work for themselves privately often hire interns who are studying to work in their field. Though it is uncommon, some museums will hire individuals who do not have degrees but have an extensive history of successful museum internships and apprenticeships.
Museum conservators should possess many useful skills such as excellent attention to detail, an interest in research and preservation, good communication skills for working with others in a team environment and working with the public, and the ability to patiently teach others.
The workplaces of museum conservators depend greatly on the type of museum and the nature of their work. Some conservators spend most of their time in an office doing research projects on various additions to the museum’s inventory. Other conservators work with the general public teaching museum visitors about the different artifacts and answering questions about the exhibits.
Traveling to other places can be a large part of the job for museum conservators employed by large museums and institutions. They may be required to travel to meet with collectors of artifacts and conservators from other museums to organize exhibits their museums have an interest in showing.
Museum conservators who spend much of their time restoring artifacts will be in a work environment that involves a great deal of lifting, climbing, and physical exertion. Larger institutions, such as outdoor museums, will require the conservator to do a great deal of walking.
Museum conservators in the private sector earned an average salary of $36,470 per year in 2004. Conservators working in the public sector, such as the government, earned an average salary of $76,126 annually in 2005.