Preserving History for Posterity: The Museum Conservator

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Nearly 850 million visitors come to American museums each year, according to the American Alliance of Museums. These visitors see the many colorful, historic, and informative exhibits, but few see the important behind-the-scenes work that keeps the exhibits running. This is the job of the conservator.
Conservators, such as Rebecca Newberry of the Science Museum of Minnesota, look after the museum’s collection, working to preserve the artifacts and specimens out on display, in transit between museums, and in storage.
“I deal with preventing damage — my biggest concern is to prevent harm and damage to our collection first and foremost,” Newberry said. “And then there are projects: I could be getting things ready for exhibits, I could be examining something that’s come back from loan, I could be treating an object that we discovered needed work that was on exhibit. Every day it’s a little different.”
Much of a conservator’s job concerns the immediate environments for the artifacts. Due to the artifacts’ ages, many are especially fragile, and the conditions they are subjected to can affect their longevity. Temperature, humidity, lighting, vandalism, and pests such as mold or termites can make all the difference.
For example, a piece of clothing with fabric prone to fading might be put in a sealed case with only one window, and visitors must push a button to illuminate the display case. Old pieces of pottery or wood in artwork can be sensitive to humidity, and might need to be placed in a sealed case with special gel to control the humidity.
“Once you seal it to control the humidity, you’re also sealing all the volatile materials that might be in the case, too,” Newberry said. “When people talk about using archival or acid-free materials, it just means that object or material is inert and won’t react with other objects or break apart.”
In addition to caring for the artifacts out on display, conservators also take care of the many artifacts and specimens that belong to the museum’s collection that are in storage. Though these samples from the collection aren’t out on exhibit, they still need to be maintained by the conservator. Often, Newberry said, only 5 percent of the collection will be out on exhibit. This is especially true for natural history collections, which often contain many replicate samples of the same species.
“People say, ‘Why do you have so many butterflies?’ Well, if you were the only human we collected to learn about what humans are, we’d have a pretty limited idea about what humans are like,” Newberry said. “But if we collect a variety of people, we have a better idea about the variation within the species. Because of that, the collection may not be as interesting for an exhibit, but they’re very interesting for science and researchers.”
Often, researchers will be able to access samples from a museum’s collection through an online database with photographs, or they may request an inter-museum loan through the institution they work for in order to spend more time studying the samples.
Additionally, conservators work with the museum’s exhibit developers to help select pieces from the collection that support the exhibit’s thematic concept. Based on the chosen pieces’ stability, the conservators can either begin working on how the pieces will be displayed in the exhibit, or they can veto a piece that is too fragile for that particular display. If additional pieces are required to supplement an exhibit, the museum may borrow from other museums’ collections.
Since they often work with fragile works of art or artifacts, conservators must have strong backgrounds in both chemistry and studio art, and often must also be familiar with concepts in anthropology, geology, art history, and biology.
“You need to understand how to make art in order to understand how to preserve it, so you need a portfolio that shows you understand how to paint, how to do photography, ceramics, that kind of stuff, and that you understand the underlying chemistry of materials,” Newberry said.
Museum conservators undergo a rigorous training program, obtaining a master’s degree in a three-year program culminating in a yearlong internship. As undergraduate students, aspiring conservators often work on building up their knowledge of chemistry and studio art.
“One thing I don’t think people understand is how much science goes into conservation,” Newberry said. “There’s a lot of having to understand what is happening at a molecular level in the material that we’re working on, so knowing that if you add this particular solvent to this particular material, you could do a lot of damage, so it’s important to understand the chemistry behind what you’re doing.”

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