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At 500 years old, the Mona Lisa started showing her age. The wood panels around her have begun to warp, and to find out what’s happening and what needs to be done to preserve this icon of western art, the folks at the Louvre are calling on art conservationists.

Trained in no less than history, art history, archeology, chemistry, materials science, art and artifact technology, craft skills, preventive maintenance, treatment techniques, conservation history, and ethics and philosophy, art conservationists are the mechanics that help keep our cultural heritage running. Students in art conservation programs specialize in areas such as textiles, wood, paper, photographs, library materials, paintings, and natural-science collections and anthropological, historical, decorative, and art objects of all materials. Professionals in this field fuse their aesthetic sensibilities with technical skill and a firm grasp of context.

Degree Information

Art Conservation (M.S.) programs typically take three years. They mix coursework in with internships (usually during the summer) and usually have a combination of written and oral examinations and a research paper, but rarely a thesis. For some programs, students don’t specialize until they’re a few semesters in. Other programs are already specialized and so require specific skills for admission--for instance, a furniture-restoration program will require demonstrable skill in woodworking.

Questions to Ask Yourself When Choosing a Degree Program

  • Do you know what you want to specialize in, whether a particular material or group of objects such as documents and books, paintings, decorative arts, textiles, metals, or architectural material?
  • Are you interested in curatorial work?
  • Do you want to work in the geographical area after you graduate? This is especially important when determining internships.
  • Who are the instructors? What work have they done? How accessible are they?
  • With what organizations (such as museums) does the school have relationships?

Career Overview

Art conservationists can work at public and private museums, for artists’ estates, for governments--anywhere there are objects, paintings, papers, and artifacts worth conserving. However, according to a professional distribution list, the increase in the past five years of post-graduate internships has made it harder for students with master’s degrees to secure actual positions, and it is not uncommon for students to have several year-long post-grad internships, meaning several years of work before attaining a measure of job security.

Career/Licensing Requirements

For these fields, a master’s degree is the only "license" one needs.

Salary Information

Salaries vary considerably by type and size of employer and often by specialty. Median annual earnings are in the mid-$30,000 range at museums, historical sites, and similar institutions. But salaries of curators in large, well-funded museums can be several times higher than those in small ones.

Related Links

American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works
The professional membership organization for conservators.

American Association of Museums
All kinds of information about museums in the United States.

Conservation Directory
Offers a good overview of art conservation. Includes listings and links to schools, professional organizations, and institutions.