Conservation scientist

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Conservation scientist using a liquid chromatograph-mass spectrometer at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. IMA Conservation Science.jpg
Conservation scientist using a liquid chromatograph-mass spectrometer at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

A conservation scientist is a museum professional who works in the field of conservation science and whose focus is on the research of cultural heritage (e.g. art, artifacts, buildings, and monuments) through scientific inquiry. Conservation scientists conduct applied scientific research and techniques to determine the material, chemical, and technical aspects of cultural heritage. The technical information conservation scientists gather is then used by conservator and curators to decide the most suitable conservation treatments for the examined object and/or adds to our knowledge about the object by providing answers about the material composition, fabrication, authenticity, and previous restoration treatments.


Responsibilities and duties

The main responsibility of a conservation scientist is to provide analytical and technical support for the preservation and restoration of cultural objects using scientific analysis and techniques. [1] These tasks are accomplished primarily in four ways: 1.) the identification of materials and fabrication of an object, 2.) studying the degradation mechanisms of the objects, 3.) developing and testing conservation-restoration treatments, and 4.) developing and testing new analytical techniques and equipment. Each task is properly documented by conservation scientists with such information as composition, condition, history, and suggested treatments. [1] Additionally, many of these tasks require conservation scientists to collaborate with other museum professionals and industrial/mainstream scientists in order to properly accomplish them, in particular with conservators and curators (see Related positions).


Conservation scientist using Raman spectroscopy at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. IMA Conservation Scientist using Raman spectroscopy 1.jpg
Conservation scientist using Raman spectroscopy at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

The identification of an object’s component materials is the most basic of conservation science tasks. [1] This is typically accomplished using non-destructive examination techniques or, if necessary, destructive analytical techniques designed for small samples (see Instruments and uses). The information yielded about the object’s material composition aids in the development of preventive conservation measures- such as lighting and humidity controls-and the selection of appropriate restoration treatments. The analysis of materials can also lead to discoveries about the object’s origin and fabrication. [2] Such studies, called technical art history, can provide insight into the time period of an object, its authenticity, the artist, and previous restoration treatments. In addition to leading to new interpretations, this information impacts the selection of treatments by conservators and conservation scientists.


Another key focus of conservation science is studying the degradation or deterioration mechanism of objects. Using chemical analysis, conservation scientists can determine the underlying material processes (i.e. aging and chemical reactions), risk factors, and environmental conditions causing the objects to degrade. [3] This information can then be used by conservation scientists, in collaboration with conservators, to develop appropriate treatments for objects, in particular treatments that can provide long-term stability and preservation for the examined object.

Development of conservation-restoration treatments

The continuing development of new conservation materials (e.g. cleaning solvents) and techniques is an essential aspect of the conservation of cultural heritage. This research ensures the continued existence of cultural heritage in the best condition possible considering their age and degradation. Conservators often rely on conservation scientists for their scientific knowledge and skills in the development of these materials and treatments. Conservation scientists are asked to evaluate the effectiveness and safety of current materials and treatments, to improve those material/techniques, and to devise new materials and techniques. [1] The goal is to develop conservation treatments and materials that can slow the degradation of materials and further damage effectively and without harming the object. [3]

Development of new analytical techniques and equipment

In addition to developing conservation treatments and materials, conservation scientists collaborate with industrial scientists and instrument manufactures in the development of new analytical techniques and equipment. [4] Conservation scientists are constantly looking for and developing new techniques and instruments that improve the condition and treatment of objects. To this end, scientists are developing new techniques and instruments to: decrease and eliminate the need for sampling objects to minimize collateral damage, better analyze materials, document results, improve ease (e.g. portability), improve environmental monitoring. [1]


In addition to their scientific responsibilities, conservation scientists have a duty to help educate new conservations scientists, the conservation field, and the public as part of their ethical code. [5] To ensure the continuation and quality of their profession, conservation scientists are involved in the training of new conservation scientists as members in academic conservation departments, adjunct faculty, and as mentors to those in fellowships, internships, and entry-level jobs. [1] Conservation scientists also help educate the conservation community at large by disseminating their research to promote the growth and use of the best conservation practices and materials. Lastly, conservation scientists educate the public about conservation science to promote awareness of about the field and its importance to the preservation of our cultural heritage.

Knowledge, abilities, and skills

The basic knowledge, skills, and abilities needed by conservation scientists are:

Instrumentation and uses

Indianapolis Museum of Art Conservation Science Laboratory. IMA Conservation Science Lab.JPG
Indianapolis Museum of Art Conservation Science Laboratory.

Conservation scientists use a variety of microscopic, spectroscopic, chromatographic, and other scientific techniques and instruments to physically and chemically examine objects. [7] Non-destructive techniques are favored by conservation scientists so to preserve the originality, integrity, and current state of the object as much as possible. Such non-destructive methods include visual examination, advanced imaging techniques, and X-rays. [8] Sometimes, sampling an object is unavoidable. In these cases, microscopic fragments are removed from the object- rarely visible to the naked eye- and their original location is documented. The scientific and ethical demands of a conservation scientist require a variety of instruments- taken from mainstream science and slightly modified- in order to conduct their research properly. Listed below are some of the most commonly used instruments in museum laboratories today and how they are used by conservation scientists.


Caitlyn Phipps using micro X-ray fluorescence (XRF) Spectroscopy at the Indianapolis Museum of Art IMA Conservation Science XRF 2.jpg
Caitlyn Phipps using micro X-ray fluorescence (XRF) Spectroscopy at the Indianapolis Museum of Art



Education and training

There is much discussion and debate in the field of conservation science about the amount and type of education and training that should be required for people entering the field. Currently, there is no one set path to becoming a conservation scientist. A 2013 survey conducted by the International Center for the Study of Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) on the education and training paths for conservation scientists worldwide concluded that:

the largest categories of recommend qualifications are the combinations BA+MA (24%) in conservation and BSc+MA in Conservation (23%). The majority, 87%, thinks you need both science and conservation qualifications. 44% of the respondents thing you should have 0-2 years of working experience, and 41% think you need 3 years or more. [20]

This survey demonstrates that there is no worldwide consensus on the type and amount of education and training needed to become a conservation scientist, resulting in regional and institutional variations.

In the United States, the most common route taken is an advanced degree in a physical, natural, or applied science discipline such as physics, chemistry, material science, biology, engineering, and geology. [21] Master’s degrees are acceptable, but most conservation scientists have their PhD. In fact, a doctoral degree is becoming an increasingly common requirement for even entry-level conservation science positions. [21] A basic knowledge of conservation theory and practice, art history, and/or other relevant humanities disciplines (e.g. archaeology, anthropology, fine arts, history, etc.) is also essential. Scientists seeking to enter the field typically gain this experience and knowledge through postdoctoral fellowships. There are several postdoctoral programs in particular for scientists to receive specialized training in conservation science, including those at the National Gallery of Art (the Charles Culpepper Fellowships), Harvard University Art Museum, and the Getty Conservation Institute. Numerous museums and cultural institutions also have individual advanced training fellowships in conservation science through such organizations as the Kress Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. [21] The Northwestern University-Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies (NU-ACCESS) is one example of an Andrew W. Mellon funded fellowship. [22]

In Europe, there are two common routes taken to become a conservation scientist. [23] The first path is a postgraduate course in conservation science that includes training, research, and practice/experience with practicing conservators-restorers. The European PhD in Science for Conservation (EPISCON), which is a three-year fellowship program at ten participating institutions, is an example of such a program. [24] The second pathway is on the job training on a conservation science team combined with continuous professional development. [23]

Professional organizations

As a unique mixture of academic disciplines, conservation scientists may join an assortment of professional organizations to suit their varied needs and specializations. These organizations may include those dedicated solely to conservation science, conservation, or a related science field. Many of the general conservation and related science organizations, in fact, have specialized groups for conservation science. The American Ceramic Society, for example, has an Art, Archaeology, and Conservation Science division devoted to advancing the scientific study of ceramics and their preservation. [25]

The following list is by no means comprehensive for possible organizations as there are numerous regional, national, and international associations for each category.

Conservation science organizations

Conservation and preservation organizations

Scientific organizations

Notable individuals

Due to the nature of their job and positions in museums, conservation scientists are also sometimes referred to as "scientists", "museum scientists", "art scientists", or "cultural heritage scientists". They are generally located organizationally in the conservation or science department of cultural institutions; although, some museums do have departments solely dedicated to conservation science (e.g. Kunsthistorisches Museum). [29]

Conservation scientists also collaborate with a variety of museum professionals and industrial scientists in order to accomplish all of their responsibilities and duties. [30] Due to the similar nature of their duties, they most frequently work with conservators (i.e. conservator-restorer and object conservator) and curators to complete technical studies on the objects in their museum’s collection to determine the materials used, the artist’s techniques, the authenticity of the work, and previous conservation treatments. These three professions also collaborate to determine conservation treatment goals and the ideal environmental conditions (preventive conservation) for the objects. Exhibition designers, architects, and collection managers also consult with conservation scientists to ensure that environmental conditions are suitable for the objects while either in storage or on display.

Industrial scientists are also consulted by conservation scientists about object materials and chemical studies. The two groups of scientists, along with instrument manufactures, also collaborate "to develop and adapt new non-invasive analytical techniques." [30]

See also

Related Research Articles

Conservation and restoration of cultural heritage Process of protecting tangible cultural heritage

The conservation and restoration of cultural heritage focuses on protection and care of tangible cultural heritage, including artworks, architecture, archaeology, and museum collections. Conservation activities include preventive conservation, examination, documentation, research, treatment, and education. This field is closely allied with conservation science, curators and registrars.

With respect to cultural heritage, conservation science is the interdisciplinary study of the conservation of art, architecture, technical art history and other cultural works through the use of scientific inquiry. General areas of research include the technology and structure of artistic and historic works. In other words, the materials and techniques from which cultural, artistic and historic objects are made. There are three broad categories of conservation science with respect to cultural heritage: 1) understanding the materials and techniques used by artists, 2) study of the causes of deterioration, and 3) improving methods/techniques and materials for examination and treatment. Conservation science includes aspects of chemistry, physics and biology, engineering, as well as art history and anthropology. Institutions such as the Getty Conservation Institute specialize in publishing and disseminating information relating to both tools used for and outcomes of conservation science research, as well as recent discoveries in the field.

Conservator-restorer professional responsible for the preservation of artistic and cultural artifacts

A conservator-restorer is a professional responsible for the preservation of artistic and cultural artifacts, also known as cultural heritage. Conservators possess the expertise to preserve cultural heritage in a way that retains the integrity of the object, building or site, including its historical significance, context and aesthetic or visual aspects. This kind of preservation is done by analyzing and assessing the condition of cultural property, understanding processes and evidence of deterioration, planning collections care or site management strategies that prevent damage, carrying out conservation treatments, and conducting research. A conservator's job is to ensure that the objects in a museum's collection are kept in the best possible condition, as well as to serve the museum's mission to bring art before the public.

The Smithsonian's Museum Conservation Institute (MCI) aims to be the center for specialized conservation and technical collection research for all of the Smithsonian museums and collections. MCI's staff combine state-of-the-art instrumentation and scientific techniques with the knowledge of materials and the history of technology to provide technical research studies and interpretation of art, as well as historical and anthropological objects, to improve the conservation and collections storage capabilities at the Smithsonian. For the majority of the Smithsonian collections, MCI is the only Smithsonian resource for technical studies and analyses.

The Rathgen Research Laboratory is a Research Institute of the Berlin State Museums under the auspices of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation. It carries out cross-material conservation science, art technology and archaeometry studies of fine arts and cultural artifacts to determine composition, age and authenticity and provide advice on their restoration. It further conducts academic research on scientific issues concerning the care and preservation of monuments and archaeological sites. Founded in 1888 as the Chemical Laboratory of the Royal Museums in Berlin, it is the oldest museum laboratory in world and bears the name of its first Director, Dr. Friedrich Rathgen.

Conservation and restoration of silver objects

The conservation and restoration of silver objects is an activity dedicated to the preservation and protection of objects of historical and personal value made from silver. When applied to cultural heritage this activity is generally undertaken by a conservator-restorer.

Conservation and restoration of glass objects

Conservation and restoration of objects made of glass is one aspect of conservation and restoration of cultural heritage. The nature and varying composition of the material, and the variety of types of object made from it, demand certain specialized techniques. The conservator needs to be aware of "agents of deterioration" presenting particular risk to glass objects, and how to prevent or counteract their effects. Relevant education and training is available in certain countries through museums, conservation institutes and universities.

Paintings conservator individual responsible for protecting cultural heritage in the form of painted works of art

A paintings conservator is an individual responsible for protecting cultural heritage in the form of painted works of art. These individuals are most often under the employ of museums, conservation centers, or other cultural institutions. They oversee the physical care of collections, and are trained in chemistry and practical application of techniques for repairing and restoring paintings.

Conservation technician specialist who is trained in basic conservation methods pertaining to cultural property

A Conservation Technician is a specialist who is trained in basic conservation methods pertaining to cultural property and may work in museums or public or private conservation organizations. Typically an individual may work with or be subordinate to a conservator. A technician may also work in conjunction with other collection staff, such as a registrar (museum) or collection manager.

The Association of North American Graduate Programs in the Conservation of Cultural Property (ANAGPIC) is an organization comprising universities located in North America that offer graduate programs in the field of art conservation. Each association member's primary mission is to provide education and training in conservation through the awarding of an accredited degree. Since 1974, the conservation graduate programs have held an annual meeting at one of the member programs in order to give current students the opportunity to present current research to their peers.

Objects conservator professional that specializes in the conservation of three-dimensional works

An Objects conservator is a professional, working in a museum setting or private practice, that specializes in the conservation of three-dimensional works. They undergo specialized education, training, and experience that allows them to formulate and implement preventive strategies and invasive treatment protocols to preserve cultural property for the future. Objects conservators typically specialize in one type of material or class of cultural property, including metals, archaeological artifacts, ethnographic artifacts, glass, and ceramic art. Objects conservation presents many challenges due to their three-dimensional form and composite nature.

Conservation and restoration of plastic objects

Conservation and restoration of objects made from plastics is an activity dedicated to the conservation of objects of historical and personal value made from plastics. When applied to cultural heritage this activity is generally undertaken by a conservator-restorer. Within museum collections there are a variety of artworks and artifacts that are composed of plastic material whether they are synthetic or semi-synthetic; these were created for a range of uses from artistic, to technical, to domestic use. Plastics have become an integral component of life and many plastic objects have become staple icons or objects worth preserving for the future. Although relatively new material for museum collections, plastics having originated in the 19th century, they are deteriorating at an alarming rate, risking the loss not only of the objects themselves, but through their deterioration processes they place objects within their vicinity at risk too. Plastics are made of synthetic, semi-synthetic and organic material, all of which are susceptible to degradation, with their respective off-gassing being harmful to the objects nearby in museum collections.

Photograph conservator professional who examines, documents, researches, and treats photographs

A photograph conservator is a professional who examines, documents, researches, and treats photographs, including documenting the structure and condition of art works through written and photographic records, monitoring conditions of works in storage and exhibition and transit environments. This person also performs all aspects of the treatment of photographs and related artworks with adherence to the professional Code of Ethics.

Textile conservator conservator-restorer charged with the care, treatment, research, and preservation of textiles

A textile conservator is a conservator-restorer charged with the care, treatment, research, and preservation of textiles. Issues addressed by a textile conservator are generally related to the field of textile preservation, and include damage caused to textiles by: light, mold and mildew, insects, cleaning, surface cleaning, washing, mounting for display, and storage. Variations in textile types and “the diversity of the textile conservator’s work makes it a very rewarding profession”. Textiles are among the most fragile artifacts, as they are susceptible to damage from atmospheric pollutants, moisture, biological organisms, and environmental changes and care varies with size, shape, material, and condition issues, all of which a textile conservator must be well versed.

Conservation and restoration at the Smithsonian Institution deals with the care of the 138 million artifacts located in the collections of Smithsonian Institution. Work is conducted by one research center, the Museum Conservation Institute (MCI), and by conservators at the Smithsonian's museums, galleries, zoo. Smithsonian conservators provide myriad services to their units, including exhibit preparation of the museum collection and loan objects, advising on object care, training for future generations of conservationists, engaging in routine preventive care on a daily basis, conducting research projects related to the collections, and examining objects for evidence of manufacturing techniques and previous restorations All conservation labs collectively further the mission of the Smithsonian Institution, "the increase and diffusion of knowledge." Founded in 1846 the Smithsonian is the world's largest museum and research complex, consisting of 19 museums and galleries, the National Zoological Park, and nine research facilities.

The conservation and restoration of lacquerware prevents and mitigates deterioration or damage to objects made with lacquer. The two main types of lacquer are Asian, made with sap from the Urushi tree, and European, made with a variety of shellac and natural resins. Lacquer can be damaged by age, light, water, temperature, or damaged substrate.

The conservation and restoration of Ancient Greek pottery is a sub-section of the broader topic of conservation and restoration of ceramic objects. Ancient Greek pottery is one of the most commonly found types of artifacts from the ancient Greek world. The information learned from vase paintings forms the foundation of modern knowledge of ancient Greek art and culture. Most ancient Greek pottery is terracotta, a type of earthenware ceramic, dating from the 11th century BCE through the 1st century CE. The objects are usually excavated from archaeological sites in broken pieces, or shards, and then reassembled. Some have been discovered intact in tombs. Professional conservator-restorers, often in collaboration with curators and conservation scientists, undertake the conservation-restoration of ancient Greek pottery.

The Modern and Contemporary Art Research Initiative is a program started by the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI). It began in 2007 in response to the variety of new materials and technologies being used by contemporary artists in their work, and the lack of known conservation treatments for these new materials. This area was seen as a gap in the field of conservation, but also posed unique challenges when considering the intention of the artist and the physical aging that his or her materials might endure. According to Thomas F. Reese, "Conservators...must enter into the critical spirit of the works themselves if they are to save and transmit not merely decontextualized fragments but their essence to the future."

Conservation and restoration of quilts

The conservation and restoration of quilts refers to the processes involved in maintaining the integrity of quilts and/or restoring them to an acceptable standard so that they may be preserved for future generations. Quilts have been produced for centuries, as utilitarian blankets, decorations, family heirlooms, and now treasured museum collections objects. Quilts are three-layered textile pieces with a decorated top, a back, and a filler in the middle. The composite nature of these objects creates an interesting challenge for their conservation, as the separate layers can be made of different textile materials, multiple colors, and therefore, varying degrees of wear, tear, and damage.


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