Kaiatawhai Whakaora Taonga
Conservators help preserve art and artefacts by preventing unnecessary deterioration and repairing any damage.
Conservators with one to five years' experience usually earn
$55K-$70K per year
Conservators with more than 10 years' experience usually earn
$75K per year
Source: Auckland Art Gallery, 2015.
Pay for conservators varies depending on their experience and the type of organisation they work for:
- Full-time conservators can expect to start on $55,000 a year.
- With five years' experience, conservators usually earn $55,000 to $70,000.
- Conservators with 10 or more years' experience may earn $75,000 or more.
Graduate conservators may need to volunteer or work on short-term contracts as conservation assistants or technicians to gain experience.
Source: Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2015.
(This information is a guide only. Find out more about the figures and diagrams in our job information)
What you will do
Conservators may do some or all of the following:
- research the history of artworks and artefacts such as ngā taonga tūturu (old Māori objects)
- analyse and test items to determine what they are made of, their condition, and the authenticity of the materials
- consult with curators, owners or iwi about how to treat items
- repair and/or preserve items using physical and chemical treatments
- document an item's condition and any conservation work done
- advise other staff or collectors on preventive conservation, including how to store, display and transport artworks and artefacts
- keep up to date with new developments in conservation.
Skills and knowledge
Conservators need to have an understanding of:
- different approaches to the conservation of objects
- conservation principles and ethics
- the chemistry of materials and how to use chemicals safely
- ngā taonga Māori.
Conservators also need to have specialist knowledge in their area of interest, and a commitment to ongoing education.
- usually work regular office hours, but may sometimes work longer hours to meet deadlines
- work in private studios and labs at museums and galleries
- work in conditions that may be hazardous, as they work with poisonous chemicals
- may travel to visit marae and private collectors
- may travel internationally to accompany art works being exhibited around the world.
What's the job really like?
Managing Director, Head Conservator
An earthquake started Carolina's career in conservation
Shortly after Carolina Izzo finished studying conservation in Florence, a large earthquake seriously damaged the historic town of Irpinia, Italy.
“I went there as a volunteer and stayed for four and a half years living in a cell in a monastery. That was the fastest way to learn.”
When the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes struck Christchurch, Carolina’s experience with damaged buildings was sought after.
She worked on the earthquake-damaged dome of the Isaac Theatre Royal, including restoration of a 120 square metre painted canvas that graced the inside of the dome.
Understanding the social impact of art is important
Students of art or conservation should consider the social impact of art, says Carolina. “It's important to know why we do conservation work.”
This understanding is necessary when considering the significance of the work within its community. “I use all the tikanga Māori I learnt at Te Papa, like no food around artworks.”
Carolina says works of art can be very significant to their owners so it is important you are clear on what you can and can’t do with the works.
“We mainly discuss values and options with the client – my work is all about communication.”
To become a conservator you need a tertiary qualification in conservation studies. Employers increasingly prefer candidates with a Master of Arts in conservation studies.
An undergraduate degree in a subject such as cultural heritage studies, archaeology, art anthropology, organic chemistry, science, fine arts or art history is needed to enter postgraduate training.
Bachelor's degrees specifically in conservation are only available overseas, in places such as Europe, the United States and Australia.
Qualifications available in Australia
The nearest university offering a Bachelors in conservation is the University of Canberra, Australia. A related Master's degree is offered at the University of Melbourne.
- University of Canberra website - information on the Bachelor of Heritage, Museums and Conservation
- University of Melbourne website - information on the Master of Cultural Materials Conservation
Qualifications available in New Zealand
Universities in Auckland, Wellington and Palmerston North offer postgraduate programmes in heritage and conservation subjects. There may also be the option to study by distance.
- Massey University website - information on museum studies programmes
- University of Auckland website - information on museums and cultural heritage programmes
- Victoria University of Wellington website - information on museum and heritage studies programmes
Chemistry and English are essential for conservators. Other useful secondary school subjects are art history, workshop technology, maths, history and art. A tertiary entrance qualification is needed.
Conservators need to be:
- patient and detail-oriented
- methodical and organised
- accurate and careful, with good judgement as much of their work involves handling irreplaceable items
- passionate about their work and the art or artefacts they're responsible for
- good researchers with analytical skills
- good writers and communicators
- skilled in solving problems and negotiating.
You need good negotiation skills, and to understand people's needs. You have to be sensitive when someone says something was their great-great-grandmother's – that gives it importance.
Managing Director, Head Conservator
Useful experience for conservators includes:
- creating art or making craft items
- volunteer experience or work in museums, art galleries or libraries
- conservation technician work
- experience relevant to their speciality, such as photography for photographic conservators.
Conservators need to be skilful with their hands. They should also have good eyesight (with or without corrective lenses), good colour vision, and good hearing (if they are working with sound recordings). Conservators should be generally physically fit and able, as their work may involve lifting heavy objects.
Find out more about training
- Ministry of Culture and Heritage Manatū Taonga
- (04) 499 4229 - firstname.lastname@example.org - www.mch.govt.nz
- Museums Aotearoa
- (04) 499 1313 - email@example.com - www.museumsaotearoa.org.nz
- New Zealand Conservators of Cultural Materials (NZCCM) Pū Manaaki Kahurangi
- firstname.lastname@example.org - www.conservators.org.nz
- The Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material (AICCM)
Check out related courses
What are the chances of getting a job?
Opportunities for conservators are very limited due to:
- the small size of the occupation
- conservators tending to stay in the same job for many years, which limits the number of vacancies that come up
- high competition for vacancies that do arise.
Unpaid internships offer a foot in the door
Some institutions that employ conservators offer unpaid internships to recent graduates. This is a good way to gain experience and make contacts in the industry. The best way to get one of these internships is to approach a museum or gallery directly.
Many conservators initially gain experience working overseas before returning to New Zealand to work.
Most conservators work for museums or art galleries
Most conservators work for large museums or art galleries, but they can also work for:
- heritage libraries (libraries that hold historic documents and materials)
- historical societies
- private businesses that specialise in preserving and restoring paper, furniture, paintings or other art objects.
Many conservators are self-employed and work on short-term contracts at various institutions.
- Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, '2006-2014 Occupation Data' (prepared for Careers New Zealand), 2015.
- Olsen, C, conservation assistant, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, Careers New Zealand interview, December 2015.
- Tocker, P, executive director, Museums Aotearoa, Careers New Zealand interview, November 2015.
Progression and specialisations
Conservators usually start out as assistants to senior conservators. Often conservators have to volunteer or take short-term contracts at museums or galleries to gain experience.
With experience, conservators may move into team leader roles or become sole-charge conservators for smaller museums, libraries or collections.
At senior level, conservators may work as conservation consultants.
Conservators can specialise in working with:
- paper and books
- sculptures and objects
- ngā taonga tūturu (Māori artefacts)
- photographs and digital media
- time-based media (back-up, duplication and conservation of digital files and materials).
Last updated 1 June 2017