The role of a preventive conservator in heritage collections care
As opposed to their material specialist counterparts, preventive conservators focus on mitigating risks to objects before damage occurs through environmental monitoring, storage solutions, handling procedures, risk assessment and other related protocols.
Imagine, for one minute, leaving the execution of cosmetic surgery to a hospital’s manager. The risk of the patient dying on the surgery table would be imminent. The same principle applies to objects. Conservation interventions should not be attempted by untrained individuals from other fields, as the risk of damaging objects increases significantly.
However, preventive conservation measures do not involve direct intervention on individual objects; instead they focus on more holistic, general approaches. For this reason, it is perfectly acceptable and highly recommended for any collections care professionals who do not have a conservation degree to learn about preventive (or preventative) measures and apply them at their institutions.
Here are some important resources on preventive conservation to start (or continue!) your journey.
What does a preventive conservator do?
Preventive conservators evaluate collection environments and storage conditions. Among other responsibilities, they monitor temperature, relative humidity, light exposure, pests, and pollutants to ensure stable conditions that won’t cause damage. Preventive conservators also assess how objects are handled and stored to prevent physical stresses. They may modify storage furniture, rehouse objects in appropriate enclosures, or create custom storage solutions for oversized or high-value objects. In some cases, preventive conservators will also have a hand in various documentation protocols to minimize risks of dissociation (loss of information of objects), object misplacement, handling accidents, visitor-related damage and even security risks.
Some preventive conservators specialize in collection risk assessments to identify vulnerabilities in collections care. They evaluate emergency preparedness plans, environmental controls, and housekeeping practices to reduce risks from water damage, fire, pests, security issues, or handling practices. There are even some preventive conservators who do not work within institutions but offer contract services focused on salvage response and training. (Check out our Water Emergency Webinars for an example course on salvage response.)
While some preventive conservators may have some expertise in object treatment, they will not normally treat objects. However, they will be able to point you in the direction of a specialist. In general, preventive conservators evaluate the current situation and then recommend changes to mitigate risks and help implement improved procedures to protect collections.
University programs for Preventive Conservation
Is it possible to get a university degree that specializes in preventive conservation? Yes! Although preventive conservation degrees are less common than object specialties, it is certainly possible to study.
Several universities offer degrees and certifications in preventive conservation:
- The Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation offers a master’s degree in art conservation with a preventive conservation specialization. Did you know our very own Melissa King was the first graduate of this specialization?
- Northumbria University (UK) offers a full-time online distance learning MA program on preventive conservation.
- If you are a French-speaker, Paris I Panthéon Sorbonne University (France) also offers a 2-year MA in preventive conservation.
Are you interested in learning more about graduate conservation programs? Don’t miss Angelica Isa’s article on where to study conservation. It includes a complete international table with almost 80 programs around the world (with prices, length and other valuable notes).
Online resources if you are not a trained preventive conservator
If you work with collections but lack formal training in preventive conservation, there are many resources to help you improve collections care:
- The American Institute for Conservation Preventive Care Network offers a support community, online courses and webinars in preventive care topics like environmental monitoring, disaster preparedness, and handling/packing.
- The Smithsonian Institution publishes guidelines, case studies and articles on preventive conservation, available as free PDF downloads. Check out these examples from the Smithsonian Institution Archives.
- The National Park Service Museum Management Program offers the Conserve O Grams. “They are short, focused leaflets about caring for museum objects, published in loose-leaf format.New topics are added as needed and out-of-date issues are revised or deleted. Semiannual supplements will be issued for an indeterminate period.”
- The Canadian Conservation Institute offers Preventive Conservation Guidelines for Collections with specific notes for different types of materials.
- Museumpests.net is your go to resource for identifying all the various little critters that can damage collections
- Don’t forget to check out our Definitive Guide to Environmental Monitoring for Collections in our blog for some basics on environmental monitoring.
Staying informed about good practices, new research, and available resources will help any collections professional provide better preventive care, even without a specialized degree. With diligent effort, it’s possible to gain proficiency in this vital area for collections care. Don’t forget to sign up for the newsletters by different institutions and groups to find out about upcoming webinars of interest.
As Conserv’s focus is on preventive conservation, we constantly organize Ask Me Anything events in our Community with experts in the field. Don’t forget to sign up as a member (it’s free!) and keep an eye out for them.
Offline resources if you are not a trained preventive conservator
If you are interested in building up your reference book collection at work for preventive conservation, here are some highly recommended publications:
- Preventive Conservation for Historic House Museums by Jane Merritt and Julie Reilly (2010). This book provides practical guidance on incorporating preventive conservation into the management of historic house museums. It covers environmental monitoring, storage, handling, pest management, emergency planning, and more.
- Collection Care: An Illustrated Handbook for the Care and Handling of Cultural Objects by Brent Powell (2105). This publication provides an overview of basic collections care procedures and policies. It includes decision-making criteria and risk assessment solutions.
- Museum Registration Methods 6th Edition (2020), by the American Alliance of Museums and Edited by John E. Simmons and Toni M. Kiser. Don’t be fooled by the title. Although this book certainly focuses on the role of the registrar in the museum and documentation procedures, it also addresses preventive care, risk assessment, moving and packing, and integrated pest management among other valuable topics of interest that any preventive conservator would need to know about.
- Historical Perspectives on Preventive Conservation (Readings in Conservation) (2013), edited by Sarah Staniforth. This list wouldn’t be complete without this book on the evolution and development of preventive conservation. This book states that it is intended especially for students, so if you don’t have access to a preventive conservator and would like to dip your toes into the topic, it’s a fantastic place to start.
We hope that you enjoyed reading about where you may study preventive conservation and which resources will help you get the information you require if you don’t have a preventive conservator in your team.
If you are still feeling a bit shaky about the environmental monitoring aspect of preventive conservation, don’t forget that the Conserv Environmental Monitoring Platform is designed to help you analyze environmental factors without being a specialist. Use the automatic key performance indicators we offer in the right hand bar to give you a general idea of how your spaces are doing and easily generate automated reports for your facilities teams or loan requirements.
If you have any questions about environmental monitoring, integrated pest management, or just want to talk about preventative conservation, please reach out to us! Don’t forget to check out our blog or join our community of collections care professionals where you can discuss hot topics, connect with other conservators or even take a course to get familiar with the Conserv platform.