We have launched a new website and are reviewing this page. Find out more

Defining Conservation Science: Training and the Profession

Francesca Cappitelli
RCA/V&A Conservation (with Tate), PhD student, 20th Century Paint Materials

Helen Jones
Deputy Director, RCA/V&A Conservation

Of the professionals with primary responsibility for safeguarding cultural heritage, conservation scientists are the latest on the professional museum scene. As the importance of the care of our heritage gained a higher profile, so the need for a better understanding of materials and preservation grew: the result being a need for conservation scientists. This article will look at the training of conservation scientists, prompted by recent international attempts to define the profession and what it takes to enter it.

According to the European Confederation of Conservator-Restorers' Organisation's (E.C.C.O.) professional guidelines the role of the conservator-restorer is the

'preservation of cultural property for the benefit of present and future generations. The Conservator-Restorer contributes to the understanding of cultural property in respect of its aesthetic and historic significance and its physical integrity

The Conservator-Restorer undertakes responsibility for and carries out the diagnostic examination, conservation and restoration treatments of cultural property and the documentation of all procedures' 1

The conservator-restorer is distinguished from artists and craftspeople (item III)2, but there is no mention of the conservation scientist, even as recently as 1993.

In October 1997, forty five experts from sixteen European countries met in Italy to discuss further the role of the conservator-restorer and  their training. The meeting stimulated interesting and animated debate about the different levels of education and their  correspondence with quality in the profession. The resulting 'Document of Pavia'3 agrees with the E.C.C.O. guidelines in stressing that the training of conservators must be at university level.

Nowadays, it is not possible to think about conservation without the support of natural sciences. Art  works not only have aesthetic and historical value but also a physical nature which must be considered when deciding upon its care. Understanding the properties of materials; the micro- and macro-environment; the state of preservation and the deterioration processes and the development of conservation materials and methods are only a few examples of the great contribution that science can make in conservation. However, while the roles of curators and conservators appear to be well-established, the same is not true for conservation scientists. A number of attempts have been made to define what this term means and to whom it can be applied.

The best definition of a conservation scientist the authors have come across is by M.C. Corbeil4 , Senior Conservation Scientist at the Canadian Conservation Institute, who says 'he/she is a person trained in science who applies his/her knowledge to the conservation of cultural properties'. The main scientific disciplines in conservation are biology, chemistry, physics and computer science, with the majority of conservation scientists being chemists.

According to C. Price5, and to most conservators and conservation scientists, the best route to follow to become a conservation scientist is first to acquire the knowledge in a natural science and then to be trained in conservation. A number of conservators and conservation scientists enter their professions via this route. Generally, however, in the past, conservation scientists with a degree in a natural science were trained in conservation on the job and they continued to develop their skills and knowledge through attendance at short courses and conferences.

In recent years, specific training for conservation science has emerged. There are presently three recognised courses on conservation science at postgraduate level. One is an MSc course run by De Montfort University and an other is based at Queen's University, Canada. The RCA/V&A Conservation programme offers occasional MA studentships to train conservation scientists and offers research opportunities in conservation at MPhil and PhD level. RCA/V&A Conservation also collaborates with the Chemistry Department of the Imperial College of Science, Technology & Medicine in providing an optional course in Conservation Science to undergraduate MSc Chemistry students.

In order to collect information on recruitment and trends regarding conservation scientists,  ICCROM6 recently prepared two questionnaires, one for European centres of scientific research for conservation and the other for European conservation-restoration training centres7 . In addition, letters were sent to eminent conservation scientists, members of the ICOM-CC Working Group on Scientific Methods of Examination and participants of ICCROM courses, to try to define a conservation science curriculum for postgraduate level training.

One of the results of this survey was that, despite the fact that  the dependence of conservation on natural sciences is becoming clearer, the opportunities for work experience placements are still very limited by the few funds available.

To define the profile and the specific training for conservation scientists, an international seminar was held in Bologna in November 19998. Unlike the Pavia meeting, which was restricted to Europe, participation was from all over the world. Three of the sixty-six invited participants were from the UK. The resulting 'Bologna Document' describes the role and the skills of the conservation scientist and two training routes. A postgraduate course in conservation science is recommended, and additional training options include on-the-job job training and continuous professional development. The substantial difference to the  Document of Pavia is that the Bologna document specifies a postgraduate degree.

There was a follow-up discussion about the training of conservation scientists at the 12th Triennial ICOM-CC meeting (Lyon, 30th August - 3rd September 1999) by the Working Group on 'Scientific methods of examination of works of art'. In the UK, training was the subject of meetings of the Conservation Scientists' Group (CSG) on 15 September 1999 and 26 January 2000.
In March 2000 a letter signed by around thirty members of the UK Conservation Scientist Group was sent to R. Mazzeo, ICCROM Science for Conservation programme co-ordinator, stressing that 'many already in this field do not think it is reasonable to expect a training in science to be followed by a further training in conservation science before obtaining employment as a Conservation Scientist'.

An alternative definition and curriculum was offered. In September 2000 the UK CSG proposes to launch a new forum, to be called the Institute of Conservation Science in order to promote the understanding of conservation science in the UK and present its needs and achievements to others. (It was previously available on the internet at www.InstituteofConservationScience.org.uk)

As is pointed out in the response to the CSG's letter, the Bologna document is not the definitive answer to the problem, though it was approved by many eminent experts in the sector. The proceedings of the Bologna seminar with a copy of the 'Bologna Document', will be probably published in September 2000 and should provoke continued passionate discussion. Whatever the conclusion of these debates, the best result that ICCROM has obtained has been to concentrate the attention of curators, conservators and the more general audience on conservation scientists, especially in those countries where there is not even a term to indicate the profession.


1. E.C.C.O Professional Guidelines (I) , 1993, Brussels

 2. ibid

3. Preservation of Cultural Heritage:Towards a European Profile of the Conservator-Restorer, Pavia 1997.  Outcome of a European summit meeting hosted by the Associazione Giovanni Secco Suardo, Pavia 18-22 October 1997

4.  Corbeil,. M.C., Training options for conservation scientists in University Postgraduate Curricula for Conservation Scientists, Preprints of the International Seminar, Bologna 26-27 November 1999 (1999) ICCROM, 19

5. Price,. C.A., Training for research in conservation, in Archaeological conservation: training and employment, United Kingdom Institute for Conservation, London 1992, 18-19

6. ICCROM is the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property

7. In Preliminary  Survey on the Feasability of a Training Curriculum for Conservation Scientists, Research Report, ICCROM, second edition, Rome, November 1999, annex 5, annex 6

8. University Postgraduate Curricula for Conservation Scientists, Pre-prints of the International Seminar, Bologna 26-27