I am a conservator. A vague statement, I know. As a vocation, conservation remains poorly defined, at least to those who do not find themselves within it. The issue of terminology has been exhaustively addressed . Whilst those who are not employed within a particular profession often lack an understanding of that profession’s intricacies, they are at least familiar with what is involved. As an example, most know what one means when someone refers to her or himself as an ‘Archaeologist’. The implicitly known (excavating old things, studying those things), the imagined (Lara Croft or Indiana Jones), and the inaccurate (…dinosaurs…) create a visceral image in the minds of people who are not archaeologists. Archaeologists will often reduce their profession to the implicitly known because, though overly simplistic, it is not inaccurate. They will not explain to the layperson, however, about Harris matrices, geomorphology, or post-humanism. An example from my own experience: my sister is in marketing. She says that, although this is not incorrect, she is specifically in IT digital media publishing. I understand marketing, or rather, the idea of what marketing is. I don’t know enough of the fineries of marketing to differentiate between what I understand marketing to be and what my sister says she does.
When I tell people what I do, many have either never heard of conservation, or do not have a tacit knowledge of what that implies. The implicitly known (‘paintings’ or art) does not apply to many in the field, myself included. I am almost always forced to explain my profession. Depending on the audience, that profession changes. I am a conservator. I am an archaeological conservator. I am an archaeologist. I am a heritage material scientist. I am a conservation scientist. I am, in truth, all of these things. No one word, however, accurately defines what I do. ‘Conservator’ becomes a catchall, a nebulous term used to describe any professional that preserves or analyses any material imbued with intrinsic value, be it monetary, cultural, or sentimental. It is the profession as a reductive. Believe it or not, this definition is more thorough than that of the American Institute of Conservation , which states a conservator is “A professional whose primary occupation is the practice of conservation…” The opaqueness of this statement renders it meaningless.
This is not to say I object to being called a conservator. I DO object to being called a conservationist, as I have nothing to do with the environment or biosphere. Calling me a conservator at least shows an awareness of my field’s existence. It is the perception of what I do that I object to. Conservators are often wrote off as technicians, tinkerers applying ‘fancy glues’[i] who take an interminable amount of time to clean anything, either due to being unnecessarily cautious or having a well-honed sense of job security. A colleague of mine of several years who heads his own excavation was shocked when he discovered I knew how to carry out X-ray fluorescence to analyze the composition of floor levels at his hill fort, and that I could employ RAMAN spectroscopy to differentiate between beads made of shell biopolymorphs and natural limestone. These anecdotes are not meant to act as a long form statement of purpose; rather, I use them to highlight one of the many roles (material scientist) every conservator plays. Need a microexcavation specialist? Call the conservator. Sampling and material analyst? Conservator. Is that mudbrick wall you’re excavating next to going to collapse on your head? The conservator will tell you . Want to know if there’s a 9000-year-old wall painting buried under layers of plaster? The conservator will find out AND make it look good (Figure 1). Have questions as to what is eating your reference collection ? Watching Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit deteriorate ? Reconstructing a Greek temple ? Heat mapping historic houses ? Cleaning a blue whale skeleton ? Trying to see if the £8 million painting you want to buy is a fake ? Installing an exhibit comprised of antiquated technology ? The conservator is on it.
These examples are a fraction of what conservators do. And most are expected to do all of them. The problem, as in any profession, is that few outside of conservation understand the conservator’s skillset, how broad and yet specific it tends to be. I am certainly not the first to point this out (see, for example, Corfield  or anything Jonathan Ashley-Smith has written ). This could be in the name: Conservator sounds simplistic and unassuming, failing to illustrate the job’s complexity. The work of a conservator is by its nature intended to be unassuming. If our work is a success, only a trained eye can tell anything has been done at all . It’s difficult to point out the necessity of the work one does if the job is to make it look as if nothing is necessary. I would argue the public is only aware of the necessity of conservation when an amateur deigns their skill appropriate and blasphemes an object of significant cultural value   . In the case of the ‘Ecce Homo’ (Figure 2), the renown of the ‘conservation’ has been a boon to the local church and economy, reinventing the original as a sort of garbage masterpiece . To say it’s the most famous example of art conservation in the last decade would not be out of place. I would encourage anyone reading this (either intentionally or out of spite) to google ‘worst art restorations’. There are a number of reads to choose from: ‘Are these the worst restorations in history? 6 shocking attempts’ , ‘The worst art restoration mistakes of all time’ , ‘9 fatal restoration fails which shook the world’ , and ‘So bad that it’s good: 5 of the worst artworks restorations!’[ii] . If one searches for ‘best art restorations’, the results are nearly the same. There are no listicles entitled ‘Are these the best restorations in history? 6 jaw-dropping examples’. There are two reasons for this, the first being ‘Train Derails’ will always get more attention than ‘Train Arrives On Time.’ The second, I would wager, is that no one can identify when conservation is a success. Conservator becomes synonymous with failed conservation. Think I’m wrong? The most famous conservator in the world is ‘Spanish woman’.
To counter this, conservation has become a more visible part of museum operations, literally. Many institutions now put working conservators in view of the public, either temporarily   or permanently  . This author (Figure 3) has personally had his photo taken somewhere in the upper four figures whilst carrying out conservation treatments, thanks to busloads of tourists streaming through archaeological sites I have worked at. There is clearly an audience for conservation, from those who have a curiosity in the process or from others who are more deeply connected to preserving heritage. My brother is an accountant. There is no observation window for visitors to look in on him as he processes spreadsheets. This is not to say that accounting is not important. I am saying that museums don’t have observation windows into their accounting departments for a reason, and also that my brother won’t read this [iii].
What my brother might do is watch time-lapse videos produced by those claiming to be professionals conserving artworks, some of which have gone viral and received millions of views (Figure 4) . The damage these videos do to the sector is incalculable . The methods are often heavily suspect, and the editing is almost always done for maximum impact, leaving no room for nuance, subtlety, or process. It creates a false narrative for the viewer, one where conservator is equated to craftsperson. The audience is left to believe they’ve seen a correct treatment. Unfortunately, that audience is far greater than footfall through any one museum.
Public perception is difficult to correct, especially if that perception has been shaped by the worst elements of the field. I once tried to overcome this obstacle by rebranding my career choice with a new title. The best I came up with was ‘Archaeoconservatometor’, or a practitioner of ‘Archaeoconservatometry’, a VERY clever and VERY accurate portmanteau of archaeology, archaeometry, and conservation. It met all the criteria: It was specific, its complexity matched that of the field it was describing, and most importantly it was distinct and wholly dissociated from the problematic optics of ‘conservator’. It…did not catch on. Something about it being nine syllables made people forget it rather easily. I sadly discovered the word ‘conservator’ isn’t going to change. The only hope I now have in changing the perception of what a ‘conservator’ is is by adding my voice to those shouting ‘YES, THAT IS A LITTLE BIT RIGHT BUT NO, I MEAN, THAT ISN’T WHAT I DO AND HERE IS WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW!’
[i] This was an actual comment said by a local museum curator speaking at a conference I was attending, to a room full of ceramics and glass conservators. It was meant as a pejorative.
[ii] Conservator and restorer are often used interchangeably or are distinctly separate from one another, depending on where one practices. It’s a long argument, and one that falls just outside the realm of this discussion. Also I’m so very very tired.
[iii] Update: My brother did, in fact, read this. He would like to point out that he is an Executive Accounts and Payroll Specialist. I’m sure there’s a lesson for me to learn here, but it eludes me.
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Contributor: Jerrod Seifert
Jerrod Seifert is an archaeological conservator, heritage material scientist, and PhD researcher at Cardiff University. His research is varied, both in topic and interest.
Reviewed by: Michael Legge