What is Conservation?

Conservation is all actions aimed at the safeguarding of cultural heritage for the future.  The purpose of conservation is to study, record, retain, and conserve as appropriate, the culturally significant qualities of an object with the least possible intervention.  Conservation includes examination, documentation, preventive conservation, preservation, restoration, and reconstruction.

Based on their training and experience, and guided by a Code of Ethics, conservators are able to propose how best to care for and treat an object in a given situation, and how far a treatment should go.

Conservators employ the principles of preventive conservation which includes actions taken on the object’s surroundings to prevent damage from the agents of deterioration. The most prevalent causes of deterioration are from physical forces, thieves and vandals, fire, water, pests, pollutants, light, ultraviolet radiation, incorrect temperature, incorrect relative humidity, and dissociation.

Conservators practice the philosophy of less is more. Too much conservation work may lead to a loss of information about how an object was made and what has happened to it. Conservation does not imply putting the object back into pristine condition. The degree of intervention is decided in consultation with the owner or custodian.

Conservators respect the object’s history. Preservation of the object is not necessarily limited to the original materials. Early repairs and modifications, or traces of use such as wear marks on tools, may have historical significance.

Conservators understand materials.  Materials used by a conservator must, as much as possible, be removable in the future and must not contribute to future damage. Many materials, including many plastics, papers, adhesives, fillers, coatings, and detergents do not meet these criteria.

Conservators will distinguish conservation repairs from the original. Although treatments are often inconspicuous, it should always be possible to recognize, upon close examination or by other means, the difference between the original material and a repair. Treatment documentation plays an important role in denoting something original to the work and something that has been added.

Conservators produce written and photographic records of their work to document the condition of the object before and after a treatment, as well as the treatment itself. This information serves as a reference for the owner, custodian, researchers or future conservators.

Become a Conservator

A conservator has the education, knowledge, ability, and experience to formulate and carry out conservation activities in accordance with an established Code of Ethics.  Practicing conservators are often designated according to areas of specialization, e.g. objects conservator, paintings conservator, textile conservator, paper conservator, furniture conservator, as well as conservation scientists.  In Canada, training in conservation is typically pursued at an academic institution, with further experience acquired through internships and professional development opportunities.

Conservation Training Programs in Canada

Academic programs in Canada may focus on conservation exclusively or may include courses on collections care as part of a broader program of study. A successful career in conservation requires a thorough understanding of art and material history as well as sciences (chemistry and physics in particular), which form the basis of decision-making within the context of accepted conservation ethics. Program focus may vary in terms of experience in conservation treatment, overall collections care, and other associated activities. Admission requirements and enrolment numbers vary by educational institution; CAC recommends exploring the different areas of conservation and evaluating each program individually to decide on a course of study.

  • Algonquin College:  Advanced Diploma, Applied Museum Studies
  • Athabasca University: Certificate, Heritage Resources Management
  • Athabasca University:  Post-Baccalaureate Diploma, Heritage Resources Management
  • Carleton University:  Graduate Diploma, Architectural Conservation
  • Fleming College:  Graduate Certificate, Cultural Heritage Conservation and Management
  • Fleming College: Graduate Certificate, Museum Management and Curatorship
  • Queen’s University:  Master of Art Conservation, with specializations in Paintings, Paper, Artifacts, or Conservation Science
  • Ryerson University:  Master of Arts, Film + Photography Preservation and Collections Management
  • University of Victoria:  Professional Specialization Certificate, Collections Management
  • Willowbank School of Restoration Arts:  Diploma, Heritage Conservation

Find a Conservator

Conservation professionals are specifically trained in the preventive care and active stabilization of objects in their chosen specialization.  When selecting and employing a conservator, choose a conservator that you feel confident will provide the best possible care for your object or collection. CAC recommends that those seeking the advice of a conservator visit the website of the Canadian Association of Professional Conservators (CAPC), which is a non-profit organization that conducts a peer-reviewed accreditation process as a requirement of membership.