Unsung Masters of the Masterpieces: What it Takes to Salvage our Cultural Heritage

Blog: Unsung Masters of the Masterpieces: What it Takes to Salvage our Cultural Heritage

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In the new play Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, an art conservator is held prisoner in a crumbling museum and tasked with restoring a priceless Rembrandt painting in dangerous, violent circumstances. Read more about how real art conservators preserve our masterpieces for future generations below, from two experts in the field.

We have to admit that the dramatic depictions of conservators always make us chuckle a bit. Whether it’s Holly Hunter’s character in Home for the Holidays or Dana Barrett working on a painting in Ghostbusters II, there’s a romanticism that’s applied. And don’t even get us started how Dana could’ve gone from being a cellist to a paintings conservator. Ghosts or no ghosts.

So, can one realistically go from being a musician to a conservator? Maybe. In decades past, the profession was one of apprenticeship; aspiring conservators would work under a more experienced conservator in their specialty of choice. Nowadays, there are graduate programs that people attend to receive a Master’s degree in art conservation; there are only four graduate programs in North America for art conservation. Prerequisites for application include classwork in studio art, art history, and chemistry. Programs are highly competitive; some programs only accept 4-5 students per year, so people often have to apply multiple times. Conservators go to school longer than most attorneys: two years of formal education with a third year being an internship in a conservation lab. Most professional conservation positions now require this degree, such as those in museums. However, unlike attorneys, there is no bar exam to qualify to become a licensed conservator in the United States. Some countries, like Great Britain, have accreditation, which does require a test among other qualifications. In the United States, being a Professional Associate or Fellow with the American Institute for Conservation (AIC) is the closest a conservator can come to being bonafide in the field.
Paintings Conservator Tara Kennedy vacuuming mold off artwork after Hurricane Sandy

Co-author Tara Kennedy vacuuming mold off artwork after Hurricane Sandy

Conservation is a challenging field that combines technical knowledge and artistry with a good helping of people skills, and that is never more the case than when a conservator is asked to help after a disaster. The objects that conservators work with after disasters are generally important, with large amounts of historic or emotional value (or both) attached to them. The technical skill set acquired during training and a conservator’s years of practice allows the conservator to properly identify the type of material that has been damaged so that the right treatment approach can be chosen. There are dozens of photographic processes, for example, and knowing how to identify the process is crucial to salvaging the artifact: what works for one photo may not work for another. A conservator’s artistry is used to make any repairs look integrated with the original piece. And the people skills help a conservator guide a client towards making decisions about a treasured object that he or she is comfortable with, even in the most trying situations.

In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, though, we’re not looking do to actual conservation treatment. We’re just looking to prevent further damage as quickly as possible. Most disasters end up having some water element to them: for example, fires are put out with water; earthquakes may cause pipe breaks. So, the first job is to stabilize the environment to prevent mold growth. Mold is permanently damaging to collections materials of all types, and can grow as quickly as 48 hours after a water disaster. Stabilizing the environment may mean pumping water out of a building, or it may mean evacuating collections to a safer space. After this, the next job is to dry materials safely. During the drying process, we’re not trying to make the artifacts look beautiful again. Instead, we’re getting them safe so that we can take the time to return them to their former state, if that is possible. That is a process that can take years. Indeed, not everything damaged by Hurricane Katrina has been recovered, and the National Archives in St. Louis is still recovering documents damaged by a major fire in 1973.

Not so glamorous-sounding, huh? But what it loses in its glamor is more than made up for the amount of satisfaction that you’ve made a difference. The one thing that probably is consistent between dramatized conservators and real-life conservators working in disaster situations is the emotion involved. We definitely empathize with those who have damaged collections, and the amount of gratitude that come from these people is immeasurable. Our favorite days are the ones where we help someone with a collections emergency—where we feel we made a positive impact. Sure, acting is fun, but I doubt anyone ever thanked Sigourney Weaver for helping to fight off ghosts.


Tara Kennedy is the Preventive Conservator at Yale University Library. She holds a MLIS and a certificate of advanced studies in Library and Archives Conservation from the University of Texas at Austin, an MS in Forensic Science from the University of New Haven, and a Bachelor’s degree in Art History from Northwestern University. Before coming to Yale, she worked at the National Archives, the Smithsonian, and the Gerald R. Ford Conservation Center in Omaha, Nebraska. She is a Professional Associate with the American Institute of Conservation (AIC). She is an active member of the FAIC National Heritage Responders Working Group, and co-chair of the AIC Health and Safety Committee. Outside of her preservation work, she is a theater critic for OnStage Blog and a volunteer for the Doe Network, the Online International Center for Unidentified and Missing Persons. She loves cats, but hates Cats.

Rebecca Elder is an experienced cultural heritage preservation consultant who provides preservation advice to clients holding history collections. Prior to establishing her private practice—Rebecca Elder Cultural Heritage Preservation—Rebecca has also worked at Amigos Library Services, the Harvard University Libraries, and the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. She received her MSIS and a Certificate of Advanced Studies for Conservation of Library and Archival Materials from the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin, and now is adjunct faculty at the iSchool, teaching Preservation Management and Treatment Techniques for Bound Materials. Rebecca is a Professional Associate member of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works and serves as the FAIC National Heritage Responder Coordinator. She lives in Austin, TX with her four cats: Frankie, Princess Snowball, Thingy and Tucker. Rebecca knits obsessively, collects smashed pennies, and isn’t afraid to admit that she loves 1970s white polyester jumpsuit Elvis.