Getting Started in Conservation Science

From Wiki

What is conservation science

Conservation science applies scientific analysis to the study of tangible cultural heritage. It enhances the understanding of deterioration, identification, interventive treatment, and preventive conservation of cultural materials. Such work is highly interdisciplinary and typically involves collaboration with conservators, curators, and collection managers.

Conservation science is implemented to:

  • Characterize the chemical, biological, and physical properties of cultural materials
  • Understand deterioration processes of objects
  • Test old or current treatment materials and techniques
  • Develop new analytical tools, treatment materials, and treatment techniques
  • Measure and interpret environmental constituents like air quality, light exposure, and biodeterioration


These actions can identify the previous treatments, provenance, authenticity, or fabrication processes of an object. They also help to understand the effects of current treatments and environmental factors. Such knowledge is used by conservators, curators, and collection managers to determine the most appropriate treatments and preservation strategies for cultural heritage.

Education, training, and skills for conservation scientists

There is no set path to become a conservation scientist and those currently in the field exhibit a range of backgrounds. It is often necessary to have a Ph.D. in a physical science such as chemistry, physics, biology, geology, or materials science. It is also desirable to have some knowledge of studio art, art history, anthropology, or conservation. Many people initially train in a hard science, later applying their skills to conservation science in postdoctoral fellowships or professional collaborations. Conservators may also undergo education and training to perform scientific research on cultural heritage, and some specialize as conservation scientists. There are some programs that facilitate conservation science research on the doctorate level through collaborations between university departments and cultural heritage institutions. Examples include the Northwestern University/Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts (NU-ACCESS) and the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Science and Engineering in Arts, Heritage and Archaeology (SEAHA).

It is necessary for conservation scientists to have strong analytical skills and to be competent in multiple complementary techniques. Some of the most common instruments used to study cultural heritage are:

  • Scanning electron microscopy – energy dispersive x-ray spectroscopy (SEM-EDS)
  • X-Ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF)
  • Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR)
  • Gas chromatography – mass spectrometry (GC-MS)
  • X-Ray diffraction (XRD)
  • Raman spectroscopy
  • Microscopy and polarized light microscopy

It is also important to have strong research and project planning abilities. Conservation scientists may work on multiple projects at once, requiring them to be creative, independent, flexible, and organized. The field is highly interdisciplinary by nature, necessitating teamwork and collaboration skills. Additionally, conservation scientists must communicate their work to colleagues through presentations, reports, and articles, as well as to the public through outreach activities.

Conservation science as a profession

Conservation science research comes from many different professional angles. Some cultural heritage institutions (e.g. museums, archives, libraries) employ full-time scientists to work with their collections. Graduate conservation programs may also appoint scientists as educators to train students on technical principles important to conservation. University researchers and industry scientists collaborate with cultural heritage institutions to develop and execute novel projects. Government agencies may employ conservation scientists to act as advisors and researchers for issues related to national heritage preservation. There are also some small businesses and private practices that offer technical services to cultural heritage institutions and art collectors. Many professionals in the field may only dedicate part of their time to conservation science work, as funding for such research is often limited.

Seeking out conservation science opportunities

Many begin working in conservation science through internships, fellowships, volunteer opportunities, or professional collaborations. Some cultural heritage institutions offer research fellowships at the undergraduate level (e.g. Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute Analytical Studies Intern Program), as well as the graduate, postdoctoral, and professional level (e.g. Getty Conservation Institute, Metropolitan Museum of Art). These types of opportunities can be found by searching the websites of institutions, subscribing to mailing lists (e.g. Global Conservation Forum (ConsDistList), networking, or checking websites with compiled job and internship postings (e.g. The American Institute for Conservation, IPERION CH). A list of North American institutions with online information about conservation science research is available below. There are also many conservation science opportunities beyond North America, although they are not the primary focus of this page.

Remaining connected to the conservation community is an important part of seeking out available opportunities. This is possible through engaging in professional societies (e.g. Research and Technical Studies Specialty group of AIC), attending conferences, or maintaining communication with local cultural heritage institutions. A list of North American and some international societies that have chapters related to conservation science are provided below.

Further information about career development in conservation-related fields can be found in the [Conservation Professionals category] of the AIC Wiki and the Emerging Conservation Professionals Network page on the AIC website.

North American institutions with conservation science information

United States


Canada


Mexico

North American and International Organizations and Chapters for Conservation Science

  • ACerS: American Ceramic Society Art, Archaeology & Conservation Science Division
  • AIC RATS: American Institute for Conservation Research and Technical Studies Group
  • ICCROM: International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property
  • ICOM-CC: International Council of Museums – Committee for Conservation, Scientific Research Working Group
  • ICON: Institute of Conservation Heritage Science Group
  • IIC: International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works
  • IRUG: Infrared and Raman Users Group
  • MaSC: Users’ Group for Mass Spectrometry and Chromatography

Further Information