Why Museums and Galleries Hire Qualified Art Conservators

By Senior Conservator Peggy Van Witt

© 2010 Peggy Van Witt. All Rights Reserved.


Many works of art are priceless. Their value is often based on their rarity, and some art is so rare that its value is simply unfathomable. To maintain and preserve this artwork for generations to come, museums and art galleries employ a gamut of art conservators, who, with their skill and knowledge, actively work to conserve, repair, maintain, restore and preserve a diverse array of artwork. Without their diligent efforts, many precious works of art would fall victim to improper treatment.

Art conservation is defined as “the preservation of cultural property for future generations”. Museums and galleries seek to conserve artwork and therefore must hire art conservators to aid in their mission. While working with museums and galleries, art conservators must adhere to national and international codes of ethics and care. Art conservators and art conservation scientists are professionals with advanced training in art history, art science, studio art, and many other related fields such as chemistry and textile history.

Training required to become an art conservator is extensive, especially if the person desires to work for a museum or fine art gallery. The value of the artwork involved in a gallery or museum setting is often quite high—as compared with personal, heirloom type artwork which accounts for a large percentage of the commissions done by art conservators. Because the artwork is so precious and valuable, museums and art galleries require extensive training of their art conservators. Art conservators hired by museums and galleries have exceptional expertise in their area of conservation. This includes paintings, sculpture, textiles, ceramics, furniture and woodworks.

Fine art conservation is an ongoing process. Restoration is the first step in this process, but there never is a real end to art conservation and art preservation. Once a piece of artwork has been completely restored by an art conservator, it must then be stored properly and conserved properly. This means constant monitoring of its storage and display conditions by a qualified art conservator.

The first type of art conservation, in a museum or gallery setting, is preventative art conservation. Preventative art conservation strives to prevent further deterioration by monitoring and controlling the environment in which the works of art reside in. This includes reducing the work of art’s exposure to light and ultraviolet radiation. It also means maintaining proper temperature and humidity levels and by establishing strict standards for transport, handling, storage and exhibition.

The second type of art conservation in a museum or gallery setting is remedial art conservation. This type of conservation seeks to correct deterioration that has already taken place by stabilizing and/or repairing the damage. Using safe, reversible treatment methods and materials, this type of art conservation is closely tied to art restoration in that it is treating damage which has already occurred. During the remedial art conservation process, art conservators thoroughly examine the piece of art while keeping detailed documentation of the process with written reports and photographs.


Thirdly, there is conservation art science. This is where the most advanced, high-tech gadgets come into play as art conservators and restoration scientists conduct scientific analysis and testing to answer questions concerning the age or authenticity of the work, the artist’s techniques, material composition, and the root causes of deterioration. Sometimes called Technical Art History, this technique blends the knowledge and skills of not only the art conservator, but also the museum and/or gallery’s curator, art historian and conservation scientist. The tools and equipment used during this process is highly advanced and very technical. Many of the art conservators in this field have no specialization in art whatsoever—they are purely there for scientific research purposes. Their daily tasks can include taking x-rays of paintings, dissecting a sample of paint to determine its chemical composition, using a pressurized water tool to remove grime or dirt from a precious marble statue.

A fair majority of the work done by art conservators is able to be done only once—meaning any damage done to the artwork will be irreversible. Therefore, the experience and qualification of an art conservator for a museum or art gallery is unquestionably important. Artwork is unique, and most of the time, irreplaceable. With a great deal of pressure on their shoulders, art conservators must deliver an impeccable performance each and every work day—a job most art conservators do with pride and with ease. Because most art conservators have a fervent passion for their work, they make sure to perform to the best of their abilities, fully aware of the dire consequences of a misstep. Luckily, very few are made.