Art and chemistry have been linked since the day the first cave dweller smeared mineral pigments on a rock wall. Today’s art conservation chemists (or, conservators) work in a variety of functions to understand, preserve, and repair all types of works
of art. As part of their duties, they may document, clean, preserve, and repair works of art. Often, an analysis of the materials used in the artwork and in previous restoration efforts is
necessary in order to select or custom-design a restoration
Conservators work with irreplaceable objects, many of
them very old and fragile. They are often asked to strike a balance between restoring or repairing an object and leaving it
“as is” to convey its authenticity and antiquity. Laboratory test
samples are often very small, to avoid excessive damage to
the object, and nondestructive testing is preferred. Laboratory
instruments are sometimes adapted to accommodate very large
works of art to avoid having to extract samples.
Other conservators may be responsible for authenticating
works of art and other artifacts using laboratory analysis and a
knowledge of the materials and methods in use during the relevant period in history.
In the past, conservators entered their field through a series of
apprenticeships. Today, however, it is more common to obtain
an academic degree, often at the graduate level. Internships
and apprenticeships remain an important part of this education, however. Post-graduate fellowships are also valued for
professional development and broadening the conservator’s
base of knowledge.
Conservators may start their careers at smaller local and
regional establishments, and then move to larger facilities as
they gain experience and build their reputations.
Future employment trends
Public interest in science, art, history, and technology will continue to spur demand for curators, museum technicians, and
conservators. Because museum attendance is expected to rise
over the coming decade, many museums should remain financially healthy and are expected to schedule additional building
and renovation projects.
However, competition is intense for the limited number of
openings in conservation graduate programs. Conservators
should be willing to relocate to fill available openings. The num-
ber of museum curators who move to other occupations is rela-
tively low, and they tend to work beyond the typical retirement
age of workers in other occupations.
During recessions, museums may experience government
funding cuts that limit opportunities. Demand from the private
sector may offset some of these cutbacks.
U.S. employment for museum technicians and conservators
is expected to rise from 11,900 to 12,700 between 2010 and
2020, an increase of 7%. That increase is about half the predicted growth of 14% for all occupations, but more than the 4%
predicted for chemists in general (from 82,200 to 85,400).
BY ACS STAFF