Skip to navigation – Site map

HomeIssues8DossierThe Challenges and Opportunities ...


The Challenges and Opportunities for Conservation Education & Training in the 21st Century, in the UK

Jean Brown


The aim of this article is to consider the skills and knowledge that are required in professional conservation practice in the 21st Century in the UK and how these might or might not impact on the delivery and content of the UK based conservation programmes.

Top of page

Full text


1The aim of this article is to consider the skills and knowledge that are required in professional conservation practice in the 21st Century in the UK and how these might or might not impact on the delivery and content of the UK based conservation programmes. It is a times deliberately controversial in an attempt to unpick some of the issues faced in the UK and start considering the most appropriate outcomes. This will be done by considering the affect that changes in museum practice have had on the roles and responsibilities of the conservator in the UK and whether these should influence the content of future conservation programmes. This will also be considered in the light of the recommendations from professional organizations with regard to the qualifications required to practice conservation. Changes in the global economy will be considered in terms of their future demands on respective conservation disciplines and how these might be met. The economic downturn will be considered alongside its impact on the sustainability of conservation practice and what might be considered to meet these challenges. The conservation needs of developing countries will be considered alongside the delivery of programmes and more flexible approaches to learning. The more cognitive demands of conserving contemporary conceptual art will be considered alongside the new relationships emerging between conservator and contemporary artist and how these developments could impact on both programme content and mode of delivery. The rise in tuition fees in the UK will be considered alongside the heightened expectations of future students. In most instances I shall be raising more questions than providing answers but in doing so I hope we can start to see not only the challenges that the 21st century presents to conservation but also the opportunities.

Changes in Museum Practice and its impact on Professional Practice

2Changes in Museum practice in the UK have had an impact on the work of the conservator in many museums. The need to attract more visitors has seen the rise of exhibition programmes that offer a new experience to the visitor on a regular basis. As a result the work of many conservators has become focused on supporting the packing, transportation, display and general management of exhibitions. As a result there is less time for the analysis and complex interventive conservation of the collections at large. In some institutions this has also resulted in a reduction of the number of conservators employed. Does such a radical change in museum practice demand a change in programme content?

3The work of the conservator can involve a wide range of roles and responsibilities which can be influenced by whether they work in the private or public sector, which country they work in, whether they work for a large national museum or a small regional one. Essentially there is no one job descriptor for the work of the conservator. In many smaller museums they will be required to do a bit of everything whereas in a larger museum the focus might be on practical intervention at the bench. This situation is very challenging for the Conservation Educators who generally try to cover the widest possible range of knowledge and skills in order to equip their graduates for whichever type of employment they might choose. As a result most programmes have a huge amount of content, are resource intensive and demand a high level of contact for a comparatively small group of students, which can at times sit uncomfortably with the student:tutor ratios, generic outcomes and frameworks of higher education. As a result many programmes are at risk and some have already been closed. Does this question whether higher education is in fact best equipped to deliver the outcomes of what is primarily vocational training?

4Conservation has a large number of professional organizations but it does not have a National or International governing body as do law, medicine and accountancy. Many of the professional conservation organizations have developed recommendations with regard to the qualifications required to practice conservation.  These have included the Bologna Agreement in Europe, which recommended a three year under graduate (UG) degree followed by a two year post graduate (PG) degree. However since none of these organizations is a governing body they have no legislative power to enforce their recommendations. The only legislation governing programme structure is the higher education framework for the respective country. In the UK the higher education framework is based on a three year UG degree followed by a one year PG. These constraints might once again cause us to consider whether higher education in the UK is the best route through which to deliver conservation education and training.

Changes in the global economy and its impact on conservation

5The economic downturn in the West has seen a reduction in the number of conservators employed in the public sector in the UK and this is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. However in other areas the demand for conservators is on the increase. The focus of collecting is moving around the world as domination of the global economy has shifted. There has been a huge surge in sales of art to Asia. This was initially focused on Western art but increasingly collectors want their collections to reflect the very best in their own cultures. As a result the conservation of Asian art is an area of enormous potential growth.  Are we prepared to support these new demands?

The economic downturn and its impact on the sustainability of conservation

6Prior to the economic downturn many museums were already struggling to meet their overheads without charging an entrance fee. A situation that has only become more difficult with the spiralling cost of energy. As a result many museums have had to look very carefully at how they manage both their collections and their finances. Many have recognized that it is more beneficial to prevent problems developing across the entire collection than to provide interventive treatment for a small percentage of the collection. This approach would also appear to have certain financial advantages in that less interventive conservation is likely to be required and therefore fewer interventive conservators need to be employed. What such collections are likely to require in the future are people with the basic skills to manage exhibition programmes and preventive conservation. Is this the future for conservation in the UK and if so are we prepared for it?

The conservation needs of developing countries and more flexible approaches to learning

7The majority of conservation programmes are located in the West and focus on collections in the Western world. The majority of their graduates will work in well equipped studios with the materials they require readily available. However collections in undeveloped or developing regions of the world are often at far greater risk. Their care and conservation is an enormous challenge in regions where materials, equipment and training are often hard to find. Some programmes have established internship schemes and deliver workshops, which is excellent but they are a drop in a huge ocean. The question is not whether we are doing enough since clearly we are not. The question is how can we do more and do it efficiently and effectively in a way that is affordable both for them and us. Should we consider more flexible approaches to learning such as blended or distance learning, which can be very effective when supported by video demonstrations. Alternatively should we be developing programmes designed to meet the challenges of work in such regions that could be delivered in partnerships or as franchises. Could this provide a new future for some of the programmes that are under threat of closure?

The challenges of conserving contemporary conceptual art and its impact on the role of the conservator

8The conservation of contemporary conceptual art presents new challenges for the conservator. They are still challenged to ensure that the work can be enjoyed by future generations but in many instances such as a performance there will be no tangible materials to conserve. In the case of a performance it might be that the artist wants it to be the same each time or different in some way or alternatively it might be intended as a one off never to be repeated.  The role of the conservator is to capture the intentions of the artist in order to ensure that the performance retains its original integrity. This is often done through interviews. As a result the process of conserving relies far more on cognitive skills than the practical skills required in more traditional conservation. Where practical skills are required they can often be in conjunction with a range of materials not intended for artistic use or the use of specific equipment and formats that will in time face obsolescence. The challenges of conserving contemporary art are enormous and each exhibition can demand a new set of skills whether it be for a performance, an installation, time based media, kinetic or ephemeral artworks. In addition the role of the conservator of contemporary art has changed. It is no longer at the end of the process of creating, collecting and curating. In many instances it is now part of the creative process as more and more artists seek guidance on the materials that they use and how they might or might not change with time.  It is a huge challenge for conservation programmes to cover when the materials and the way in which they have been combined and their patterns of deterioration are often unknown. Can we provide education and training in this area in the same format that we have done in the past or do we need to deconstruct what we do and create something more fit for this challenging discipline? What are the pre-requisites that we should be looking for in future students of contemporary conceptual art? Should we be providing a format that allows the practicing conservator to upgrade their skills as and when needed? Should we be looking at work based learning frameworks and freestanding modules that can be supported online  as and when required by the student in their line of work?

The rise in tuition fees and the heightened expectations of future students

9The rise in HE tuition fees might currently be a UK phenomena but given the economic downturn there is every likelihood that the situation will extend to other countries in the foreseeable future as Government funding is withdrawn from HE and universities struggle to balance their books. In the past HE in the UK received 50% of the fee from the student and 50% from the Government. In the academic year starting in September 2012 the student will be required to cover 100% of the fee. The fees have not in fact gone up but that is the perception of many students. As a consequence there is likely to be a much greater expectation with regard to the standard of the student experience. How are we to meet this new challenge?


10More questions have been raised than answers provided but that can in itself be a start to regeneration. The threat of programmes closing and jobs being cut is all too often the perspective from which conservation in the 21st century is viewed in the UK. However there are also new opportunities of employment as new markets emerge and collections move around the globe. At the same time the advent of the internet and its supporting technology has made it possible to provide a high quality education online wherever there is a broadband connection. This has opened up new formats of delivery that have made it possible to take larger numbers of students, reduce the unit cost and bring it within reach of those in developing regions of the world. There is no doubt that the 21st century will be a challenging time for both conservators and conservation programmes in the UK but providing we acknowledge the changes and adjust accordingly there is every reason to believe that we can move forward and continue to conserve and care for collections in the future.

Top of page


Electronic reference

Jean Brown, “The Challenges and Opportunities for Conservation Education & Training in the 21st Century, in the UK”CeROArt [Online], 8 | 2012, Online since 14 October 2012, connection on 18 May 2021. URL:; DOI:

Top of page

About the author

Jean Brown

BA History of Drawing and Printmaking, Camberwell College of Arts, BTEC HND Conservation of Works of Art on Paper, Camberwell College of Arts, PGCUTL Teacher Training Qualification, The University of Northumbria, Jean Brown is Senior Lecturer Conservation of Fine Art MA
and Programme Leader Preventive Conservation MA in Northumbria University.

Top of page


Licence Creative Commons
CeROArt – Conservation, exposition, restauration d'objets d'arts est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Top of page
  • Logo DOAJ – Directory of Open Access Journals
  • OpenEdition Journals
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search