FAQ and Explainer:  About Art Conservation

What is Art Conservation & Heritage Science?

Every profession is an answer to a question:  What do we do with permanence in a change-driven world? Our collective inheritance is the foundation of our culture now. That inheritance is evolving through inertia and action, to form the cultural foundation for the next century. What parts of our cultural inheritance will become our legacy to future generations?

Our global cultural heritage is threatened by a range of factors, including climate disruption, rapid changes in our economies, technologies, and cultures, increasing inequality and homogenization, environmental pollution, tourism, vandalism arising from alienation and extremism, deferred maintenance, natural geologic hazards, and economic crises, all resulting in complex impacts to our sense of place, our environment, our material culture, and our identity.

What is Art Conservation?

Broadly speaking, Art Conservation deals with the history, documentation, evaluation, significance, protection, stability, and future of our inheritance of significant art collections, architecture, archives and archaeology. Art conservation is about managing change, not stopping it.

What is Heritage Science?  

In brief, Heritage Science is about using science and technology to investigate and protect our art collections, architecture, archives, and archaeology.

Why preserve?  

Each of us has experienced something important that others in the future should be able to experience. A great deal of our cultural heritage is lost simply through inertia, time, and a lack of good information and resources.

Art conservation and heritage science provide us a chance to cheat time, investigate art, and in a modest way, help shape the future of culture.

Why do Art Conservation & Heritage Science touch so many disciplines?  

Art conservation applies science & art, technology & history, policy & craft, ethics & culture to understand and preserve what we want future generations to be able to experience. As domains of activity, Art Conservation & Heritage Science can be thought of being under the larger umbrella of Cultural Sustainability, which is the cultural analog of environmental sustainability. Every field of human endeavor builds on what came before, and thus each of us has a fundamental interest in preserving some part of that inheritance.

What do art conservators, heritage scientists, and preservationists of all stripes work on?

Many conservation professionals work on significant art collections, architecture, archives, and archaeology. Others work to safeguard historic cities, cultural landscapes, and intangible heritage–such as cuisine, dance, oral traditions, languages, and digital heritage.

What do art conservators, heritage scientists, and preservationists do?

In general, conservation professionals are practitioners, managers, researchers, educators, and advocates. Activities often include preventive conservation, examination, documentation, research, treatment, and education. You can think of some art conservators as brain surgeons with specialized skills and others as public health doctors, analogous to preventive conservation.  Some heritage scientists are like medical researchers and diagnosticians, investigating problems and inventing new options, to assist front-line health care providers.

How are conservation professionals trained?

Internships and hands-on experience are essential. Graduate level training prepares conservation professionals to focus in a particular area, whether it’s objects conservation, preventive conservation, architectural conservation, conservation science, historic city and archaeological site management, or landscape preservation. An array of hands-on conservation training programs, internships, and fellowships are also available for many different types of materials, such as ethnographic and archaeological objects, photographs and paper, wall paintings, and rock art.

What is the future of art conservation?

If we can speculate a bit, there are likely jobs that do not yet exist, but that will leverage the skills that a number of people in the field of cultural heritage have:  to consult with diverse stakeholders, to assess, to document, and to facilitate tough choices:  about how the best of our material culture can be transplanted, preserved in place, or documented and let go, in the face of rising sea levels, hurricane, fire, flood risk, economic disruption, and climate migration.

What questions about art conservation should we be thinking about?

Broadly speaking, Art Conservation is about managing change:  It encompasses diverse values and stakeholders, ethical conundrums and difficult tradeoffs, inertia and innovation, great wealth and threadbare institutions, as well as a series of complex and challenging questions that deserve our attention:

•    Who gets to decide how we process our material cultural inheritance and create a legacy for future generations?

•    How do we decide what to preserve and what to let go?

•    How do we manage change in a way that is practical and fair to future generations?

Art Conservation is also about melding art & science, technology & craft, policy & practice, ethics & economics:

•    How do we sustain the favorite things we leave to future generations?

•    And how do we manage difficult heritage, such as sites and museums that preserve and help us learn the history of slavery and genocide?

Why are different terms used for the same topic in the field of cultural heritage preservation?

The use of different terms for the same subject in the field of cultural heritage can be confusing and often relates to variations in language and geography. The field of Art Conservation is sometimes still referred to as Art Restoration in some parts of the world. A process of restoration generally intends to bring historic objects back to their original appearance, while art conservation generally prioritizes stabilizing the existing fabric, performing thorough documentation, and the use of reversible treatments.

The application of science and technology to cultural heritage preservation is called heritage science in the UK and Europe, conservation science or museum science in the USA (often confused with conservation biology), archaeometry among archaeologists, and art forensics in some legal circles.

The field of Historic Preservation (of architecture) in the USA, is better known as Built Heritage Preservation or Built Heritage Conservation in the UK.

Internationally, the phrase “conservation and protection of cultural heritage” is often used and Wikipedia has sections on “Conservation and restoration of cultural property” and “Cultural heritage management.”

Given the complex context for the field of art conservation, what are some of the more common interdisciplinary excursions to related fields?

Technical Art History–Historic Preservation–Conservation Science

Heritage Science–Archaeometry–Art Forensics–Art Theft&Forgery

Cultural Heritage Management & Cultural Tourism–World Heritage Protection

Archival&Digital Preservation–Art Valuation–
Museum Studies–Disaster Mitigation

Why are Art Conservation and Heritage Science becoming increasingly popular?

The popularity of Art Conservation and Heritage Science appears to be part of a larger trend of interest in applied, interdisciplinary fields that have a hands-on component, and provide opportunities for meaningful work and an emotional connection. The various Environmental Studies and Environmental Analysis majors at the undergraduate level are similar in this respect. As our culture becomes increasingly dependent on science and technology, there seems to be an corresponding desire to investigate and connect with art and culture.

From novels, films, and viral videos, to one of the longest running TV shows, our popular culture has also recognized the appeal of investigating and preserving elements of our cultural inheritance. Art conservation is unusual in that it combines the arts and the sciences in the context of the environment, globalization, and sustainability. Art conservation courses also address some of the millennial-scale challenges that future generations are facing:

•    How do we save historic cities from coastal flooding?

•    How do we manage tourism and stop looting at World Heritage sites?

•    What challenges do we face in the preservation of modern and contemporary art?

•    How can we use science and technology to understand and preserve the best of our art collections, archives, architecture, and archaeology?

Undergraduate art conservation and heritage science courses can help prepare students to get into highly selective graduate programs. In addition, they can introduce them to leading art conservators and materials scientists, who help them decide on their area of interest or track, such as research, cultural resource management, and hands-on conservation (including preventive and object conservation).

Fundamentally, learning about art conservation and cultural heritage preservation makes the inside of your head a more interesting place to spend the rest of your life (to paraphrase Mary Patterson McPherson of Bryn Mawr College). It gives you a vocabulary to talk about values, and significance, and change; about what we inherit, and about what we leave behind as a culture. And it provides insights into how science and technology are changing how we investigate and preserve our art collections, archives, archaeology, and architecture.

-Eric Doehne

Claremont, California


We all stand on the shoulders of others. First and foremost, I would like to acknowledge and thank all of my students, interns, and postdocs, who have taught me so much and inspired much of my work. I am grateful for having had generous and thoughtful mentors throughout my career, and especially at Bryn Mawr College (Maria Luisa "Weecha" Crawford, W. Bruce Saunders), and at UC Davis (Karen F. Margolis-Broido, Philippe Claeys, Stanley V. Margolis, Jeffrey F. Mount, Eldridge Moores, Peter Schiffman). Many thanks to my colleagues at the Getty, at the Claremont Colleges, and around the world for the knowledge, wisdom, and opportunities they have shared. A special acknowledgment for research partners and mentors Norman Herz, Lorenzo Lazzarini, Veronique Verges-Belmin, George Scherer, Clifford A. Price, John Fidler, Heather A. Viles, and Leo Pel for sharing their expertise, insights, and enthusiasm. Undoubtedly, this list is far from complete – however, you know who you are and the impact you have had.

I have created the above Art Conservation FAQ / Explainer based on many discussions and it is intended as an informal introduction for new students and the interested public. Please send comments and questions, omissions, and corrections to Eric @ ConservationSciences.com