Calling all object conservators in the house!
August 27, 2007 10:50 AM   Subscribe

GoingBackToSchoolFilter: does anyone have experience in being a conservator? In getting a degree in object conservation?

I'm really interested in restoring wooden ships, but recognize that this is an awfully narrow specialty -- some of my other interests are textiles and ethnographic objects (which I have some limited experience in restoring).

A little background -- years and years ago I interned for a summer at the U of Penn. Archaeology Museum, and got to spend a day working in their conservation lab. I LOVED IT. Loved every minute, but between school and other interests it kind of dropped by the wayside, and I picked up a degree in anthropology. Now that I'm looking to move on from my current job (programming), this possibility is coming up again. Does anyone have any advice on breaking into the field? Is it as overwhelming and quite frankly a little scary as the AIC's literature makes it seem?

I've already looked at a few programs, and am particularly drawn by University of Cardiff's, since they place emphasis on a very holistic training style -- I get the impression that I wouldn't be tied down to one single career for the rest of my life, which is also fairly important to me.

Finally, I don't suppose anyone knows any bloggers, writers, etc who are conservators? I'm really curious especially about personal experiences in the field.

Thank you -- I hope this was all clear enough!
posted by kalimac to Education (7 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
This isn't exactly what you're looking for, but in Fargo, ND there's a wooden ship that doubtless needs work from time to time. You should talk to the Heritage Hjemkomst Center and see if they need some help or have an internship. It would be a good way to get your feet wet. Should you end up around here, I personally know the Registrar/conservator at the Plains Art Museum, and it might be possible to arrange a meeting with him to discuss what the possibilities are. He is extremely knowledgeable and professional, well-connected. The Plains has a fantastic collection of artifacts like the ones you mention.
posted by fake at 11:12 AM on August 27, 2007

You should ask the nice folks at the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums if they have local resources. Definitely check out professional development stuff and job listings through the American Association of Museums.
posted by desuetude at 11:30 AM on August 27, 2007

I just graduated from this MA program, which has an optional textile conservation emphasis. I really liked my conservation classes, but decided not to go the conservation route because I was getting the impression that I would need to LOVE it in order to do it as a career. So you'd want to be sure you LOVE it, and more internships are the best way to do that.

That said, I get the feeling that it's probably not incredibly hard to break into the field, because even though it's a small field, there aren't that many people who want to do it. If you're willing to put in your time training and interning, and to put up with low pay, it shouldn't be any harder to make your mark than in any other field.

As you probably know, not all conservator jobs are in museums. A lot of conservators are freelance. If you didn't mind freelancing, you could focus on your desired specialty and make your name as the world's foremost wooden ship conservator.

I would recommend the program I went to for textile conservation, although there are a few other good ones out there. The head of my program is the textile conservation teacher, and she'd be a good person to talk to. You can find contact info for the Grad Studies department to get in touch with her through the above link.

I don't know of any blogs or books about personal experiences in the field, though. Which is a shame, it seems like there should be some.
posted by doift at 11:56 AM on August 27, 2007

This is the sort of question discussed all the time on MUSEUM-L, which has searchable archives, and the AAM Emerging Museum Professionals lists. Both have relatively frequent discussions on "what is the best museum studies/conservation program," "are museum studies/conservation programs necessary to do the work well/get jobs," and "why can't I get a job in a museum?"
posted by nonane at 11:57 AM on August 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

If you're willing to put in your time training and interning, and to put up with low pay, it shouldn't be any harder to make your mark than in any other field.

True that. A common complaint: Conservator positions are sometimes combined with a registrar position. This person is then expected to take on a very significant amount of responsibility for very little pay.

Locally, you should also walk down to UArts and talk to the nice folks in their museum studies department. (Disclosure: My best friend has her MA from them in Museum Planning, Exhibition, and Design. Oh, and has a fantastic job in her field.) They don't have a specific textiles focus, but I bet they'd be able to give you some good advice.
posted by desuetude at 12:26 PM on August 27, 2007

I'm headed (very, very gradually) toward a degree in object conservation myself. The Cardiff program hadn't even occurred to me, so thank you!

I'd recommend subscribing to the Conservation DistList; the queries are interesting and the job postings should give you a good idea of what's out there for degree-holders. You might also consider working on an archaeological dig for preprogram experience.
posted by moonlet at 3:45 PM on August 27, 2007

Can you call the department you interned with, and see if any familiar names are still around? As with most things in life, "it's who you know".

Even if everyone you personally interacted with has moved on, simply being a semi-alumnus of the program is good. At the very least, I'd bet the head of the department would be glad to chat for a little while. Work those connections!
posted by Myself at 12:49 AM on August 28, 2007

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