Simply put, art conservation is the preservation of cultural heritage for future generations
We all have tangible things in our lives that we cherish, that we might say have become a part of who we are, or maybe even represent parts of our identities - be they cultural, geographical, religious, etc.. Throughout the lives of humans, objects have carried meaning purely because we make things and then interact with those things. Conservation professionals are dedicated to preserving the physical tangible things that have come to be important to history, society, and world cultures, but also are ever mindful of all those intangible qualities that make them so very important. By preserving the tangible, we can give back life to the intangible.
Who are conservation professionals?
Conservators are often the custodians of those historically important tangible things. Their background is rooted in materials science, art history, and the fine arts, and encompass an even development of scientific training, research abilities, and hand skills. Conservators can be found working in museum conservation laboratories, on archaeological digs, in the private sector as small business owners, on scaffolding of architectural facades or large-scale sculptures, and in libraries and archives or university collections. Conservators often specialize in a particular material such as paintings, art on paper, textiles, library and archive objects, photographs, organic and inorganic objects, furniture, and time-based media, to name a few. A conservator's skillset is, above all, interdisciplinary. You can also find them serving in leadership roles for humanities-based granting agencies, world culture alliances, research facilities, academic programs, and so much more.
What exactly do they do?
According to the American Institute for Conservation (AIC), the main governing body of the profession in the U.S., conservators are charged with "certain obligations to the cultural property, to its owners and custodians, to the conservation profession, and to society as a whole." These obligations are strictly outlined in the AIC Code of Ethics. Before taking on any project, conservators must first understand the materials and methods of construction of a cultural object, as well as its historical significance. In this way, conservators ensure that any action undertaken is in keeping with the artist or maker's original intent, that any intervention is as minimal as possible and will not damage the original material, that materials used in treatment have been thoroughly tested and proven to have good aging properties, and finally, that every action undertaken is rigorously documented, both through written reports and photographic documentation. Any and all stakeholders are consulted throughout the process.
But they don't just do treatments, do they?
No, absolutely not. In fact, many conservation professionals oversee large collections of objects and employ preventive conservation measures, such as studying effects of light damage, proper environmental controls and display parameters, storage needs, integrated pest management, sustainability, and disaster mitigation planning. Conservation science is another entire corner of the profession, where highly trained chemists, both organic and inorganic, dedicate their careers to understanding materials and methods of art and artifact manufacture, work that adds to our fundamental understanding of material culture. Many conservation professionals are also committed to outreach and to sharing the word about what we do.