What does a museum conservator do? 5 interesting ways museums conserve objects

What does a Museum conservator do?

It is the job of a museum conservator to clean, repair, and care for objects that are held by museums so they can last a very long time for the public to enjoy.

Why is conservation a very important role of museums?

Museums have a very important job that helps communities and the public. Their main purpose is to store objects, care for them, research them, and present them to people so they can experience and learn from the objects. They are meant to keep stories and histories of a country safe so that future generations can enjoy them.

To make sure future generations can enjoy the objects and learn about them the objects have to be cleaned, stored, and repaired to make sure they are still there in the future for people to enjoy. That is why conservators are so important to the success of museums.

There are two main forms of conservation that help prevent damage to the objects held by the museum.

  1. Preventative Conservation – this is work done by conservators to prevent future damage that could happen to the objects in the collection. This includes keeping pests away from the objects in storage and on display and creating mounts to display the objects or storage for the objects that will prevent damage.
  2. Restorative Conservation – This type of conservation is done to fix damage to objects and prevent it from getting worse. This includes jobs like patching up holes in objects or removing dust from the surface of objects.
museum conservator LearningMole
A museum field trip

How to become a museum conservator

People who want to be a museum conservator usually start by getting a university degree in a subject related to what they want to conserve. This could be general history, archeology, fashion, or art. You can even do a degree in museum studies which gives you an idea of what museums do and why. After their degree conservators train through programs such as apprenticeships or a post-graduate course.

5 ways museums conserve objects

1. Cleaning

Layers of dust can build up on objects and cause damage over time. Paintings can also be affected by the varnish that the artist placed on it to keep it safe hundred of years ago. Conservators can remove varnish that has changed colour and add new varnish to make the painting look brand new.

2. Patching holes

Statues and fragile frames for artworks often end up with holes in them which may cause further damage if left unfixed. Conservators use gentle materials that won’t cause damage to patch these holes and stabilize the object.

3. Re-mounting

Works on paper are often mounted on something that will harm the paper and could destroy the art or image on it. Japanese scroll works are a great example of this as their backing paper degrades over time. So, conservators take off the backing paper and remount it to make it stable again so the picture is supported and can last many years longer.

4. Lighting

Some objects in the collections are affected by light so when they are put on display the room or cabinet has special lights that will not damage the object. Examples of this include gem stones that lose their colour when exposed to light and some paints or ink that fade in strong light. This is a method of preventative conservation.

5. Safe handling

When the objects in the collections are taken out of storage or moved there are many ways they are kept safe. Gloves are worn to protect the object and the conservator, soft foam pads are placed on the tables incase the objects are dropped, and objects are only lifted if they need to be.
A surprising fact about safe handling is that conservators do not usually wear gloves when working with books and paper. This is because they could be clumsy with the gloves on and tear the paper. Instead they wash their hands every time they are going to touch it instead.

museum conservator cleaning a painting
Conservator cleaning a painting

How to learn more about museum conservation

Museums create lots of content that you can watch to help you learn more about the work they do because they want people to know all they can about museums. Here is 3 ways you can learn about conservation done in museums.

1. School Trips & Museum visits

If you visit museums with your school you may meet some staff from the museums. This could be a Curator, a Docent (Tour Guide), or a Conservator. It is a great opportunity to ask about the role of conservators and what they do in their job. They will be happy to answer your questions as well as questions about the exhibits. Some museums even host events where you can have a tour around in the behind-the-scened areas. Ask a parent or guardian to help you try and find an event near you.

2. TV programs

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London created a whole program about their museum and the work their staff does. The program is called Behind the Scenes at the Museum and shows the work done by lots of museum staff including curators. You can also ask your parents to look for other similar programs from other museums.

3. YouTube videos

One of the easiest ways to learn about conservation work and see it first hand is to watch it all on YouTube. Lots of museums create videos to show the public how they take care of the objects in their care because they do it for the public.

The National Museum of Scotland

This video shows a museum conservator team using Japanese tools and methods to conserve a Japanese handscroll in the best way possible.

The Victoria and Albert Museum

This video shows a museum conservator working on cleaning a painting very delicately and conserving a waistcoat that is worn by the man in the painting. This shows the different methods used to conserve different types of objects.

The British Museum

This video shows the mummy of a crocodile being cleaned very gently by a museum conservator to remove dust which may damage the surface of the crocodiles mummified skin. The conservator uses a very soft rubber on a stick to remove dust without getting the surface wet.

Want to know more about mummification of animals check out our article on Ancient Egypt.

The Museum of Modern Art

This video shows the museum conservator completing the process of filling gaps in a statue and covering them so it can be displayed. The materials used are not going to cause further damage to the statue and will give it support.

Conclusion

A Museum conservator plays an important role in museums by taking care of the objects held in the museum collection. Without museum conservators the objects would not last long enough for the next generations to enjoy and learn from them. Conservators prevent damage and repair damage which helps the museum to display objects for a very long time. Want to learn about how objects are displayed? Read more about Museum Curators here.

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