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About Conservation
Conservation is the preservation of cultural heritage for future generations. Find a conservation professional, learn about the field, and discover resources to help preserve the objects that are important to you.

Pre-Program

To become a conservator, a mix of prerequisite coursework and practical experience is required.

Prerequisite Coursework

Undergraduate Coursework — Prerequisites for admission to graduate conservation programs include undergraduate coursework in the sciences, humanities, and studio art. Program-specific admission requirements vary and potential candidates are encouraged to contact the programs directly for details on prerequisites, application procedures, and program curricula. With careful planning, an undergraduate curriculum can be tailored to satisfy the academic requirements of these graduate programs. 

  • Sciences — One full year each of general and organic chemistry with laboratory is typically required. These courses are often freshman and sophomore level requirements for chemistry and biology majors. Not required but beneficial supplemental areas of study include biology, biochemistry, geology, materials science, physics, and mathematics.
  • Humanities — Broad-based coursework in art history, anthropology, and archaeology should span a range of cultural traditions and historical periods. At least four to six courses are typically required. 
  • Studio Art — Formal course work in drawing, painting, printmaking, book binding, photography, and three-dimensional design (including, but not limited to, ceramics, metalworking, sculpture, and textile art) are often required. Upon application to a graduate conservation program, candidates are expected to present a portfolio demonstrating manual dexterity, knowledge of techniques, and an understanding and affinity for art materials.
  • Languages — Reading proficiency in one or more languages other than English is recommended and may be required to complete graduate education.
  • Additional Coursework — Courses in museum studies, drafting, computer science, and library science can strengthen a candidate’s application. 

Undergraduate Programs in Conservation 

While curricula and program structures vary, these degree programs are designed to prepare students with the requisite coursework for graduate training programs. They typically include support for internships and other practical training opportunities and may require one or more for graduation. These programs should include significant coursework in studio art, art history, and chemistry as outlined above, and may include specific classes on conservation topics. It is important to confirm that the program you are considering in part of an accredited university and has a qualified conservator guiding the program and advising the students.  

Career Path: A bachelor’s degree in conservation provides an introduction to the ethics and principles of conservation, but this degree alone does not prepare you to become a professional conservator without additional training. It may prepare you for internships, technician positions, allied professions, graduate school in other disciplines, or graduate conservation program. 


Professional Experience 

In addition to coursework, candidates to graduate programs are strongly encouraged (if not required) to have some practical conservation experience. Applicants are expected to be thoroughly acquainted with conservation as a career option and to have a fundamental knowledge of conservation philosophy, ethics, and basic working procedures. Internships, volunteer, and paid positions in regional, institutional, or private conservation laboratories are appropriate ways to gain experience and exposure. Involvement in supervised collections care projects — such as collection assessments, rehousing, and exhibition design, as well as the examination and treatment of individual artifacts is encouraged. Apprentice training was a more common pathway to becoming a professional conservator before graduate conservation programs were established. Today, most aspiring conservators will complete one of these degree-granting programs.

Pre-program Volunteer Positions

Volunteers work in conservation labs and provide assistance with various tasks. These tasks may include documentation and condition reporting, conducting surveys, conservation treatments, and housing of objects.  

Career Path: Pre-program volunteer positions can provide training for paid or formal internships, technician positions, allied professions, or graduate programs. Typically, a volunteer will use the opportunity to learn more about conservation and may choose to pursue further training or a paid position.

Pre-program Internships  

Pre-program internship tasks are similar to volunteer work but should emphasize learning and include opportunities for involvement in decision-making and research, working directly with conservators. Internships can be paid or unpaid and are often short-term or part-time. 

Career Path: Pre-program internships can provide training for technician positions, allied professions, or graduate conservation programs, and contribute toward preparation for professional conservation positions. Typically, an intern pursues further training or a paid position after gaining competence. 

Technician Positions 

Technicians are paid employees who perform a limited set of specialized tasks in a conservation lab. Typical duties for a technician include producing custom housings for objects and performing specific types of basic conservation treatments under the direction of a conservator. While there may be opportunities for training and development, most technician positions are not specifically designed as educational opportunities and can include repetitive work. Technicians often develop deep knowledge and valuable skills in one specialized area. 

Career Path: A technician position can provide an aspiring conservator with the pre-program experience required by many graduate conservation programs. The technician’s role can itself be a rewarding career path.


Find an Opportunity

Supervising pre-program volunteers and interns requires a substantial time commitment on a conservator’s part, and some institutions do not accept unpaid workers as a matter of policy. For these reasons, not all labs are able to take on aspiring conservators. 

Pre-program opportunities are not always formally announced and are often arranged by contacting a conservation lab or becoming involved with a regional conservation organization.   

Many libraries and museums have permanent conservation technician positions. 

Longer-term and paid positions are typically announced on the Conservation DistList, the website of the hiring institution, or in our jobs listing in the Online Community. Consult our Find a Conservator tool to find conservators near you.


Additional Resource

The Emerging Conservation Professionals Network (ECPN) is a network for those first learning about conservation and those who are completed their studies and entering the field. Consult the ECPN sub-site to learn more about how they support pre-program students.

ECPN has put together a Quick Start Guide that consolidates these ideas and compiles links to several additional resources in a one-page reference.


What's Next?

After acquiring a range of prerequisites, many students go on to earn a master's degree from a graduate program in conservation. Others may find that the skills they have developed are well-suited to careers in allied professions such as Collections Care, Exhibition Design, Museum Studies, Archiving, Technical Art History, or Conservation Science.