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Building Bridges and Conserving Culture

Kenneth Aitchison


Icon is delivering a National Conservation Education and Skills Strategy to shape the future provision of conservation education, training and research in the United Kingdom. It has undertaken research into the skills needs of the workforce, and is prioritising initiatives to improve training and qualifications, and is now seeking to re-engage with the discussion about what is needed to become a European professional conservator.

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1Icon, the Institute of Conservation is the professional association for the conservation of cultural heritage in the UK, with over 2,350 members from across the wide conservation community who share a commitment to improving understanding of and access to cultural heritage.

2Icon was formed in 2005 by the convergence of five organisations: the Care of Collections Forum, the Institute of Paper Conservation (IPC), the Photographic Materials Conservation Group, the Scottish Society for Conservation and Restoration (SSCR) and the United Kingdom Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (UKIC). Subsequently, in 2006, the Institute of Conservation Science (ICS) also merged into Icon. Convergence was fostered by the National Council for Conservation-Restoration, which was then disbanded.

3The majority of professional conservators working in the UK are full members of Icon; in March 2013, there were 1,762 full members at a time when it was estimated that 3,175 professional conservators were working in the country (Aitchison 2013).

Professional Accreditation

4While acting as the advocacy body for all conservators in the UK, Icon’s flagship service is to provide the Professional Accreditation of Conservator-Restorers (PACR). This is a high-level route for individuals to demonstrate their competence and ethical judgement. The people who have gone through the demanding, peer-reviewed, PACR process become Accredited Conservator-Restorers - but not every one of Icon’s 2,345 members is Accredited (in March 2014, 768 are). Icon recognises that people working in conservation-restoration have a range of experiences and accumulated skills, and that PACR is not a qualification that can be achieved by new entrants, but is an aspirational achievement for mature professionals.

5PACR implements standards for the care of cultural heritage across a range of disciplines. Accredited Conservator-Restorers (ACR) undergo a process of peer-review by demonstrating to assessors that they have the appropriate knowledge, practical skills and sound professional judgement.

6To apply for accreditation, an individual conservator must be a member of at least one of these three professional bodies: Icon, the Institute of Conservation, the Archives and Records Association (ARA), or the British Horological Institute (BHI). These three PACR participating bodies subscribe to the PACR professional practice assessment and follow the same procedures. Icon undertakes administration for all applicants.

Education and Skills Strategy

7As well as running PACR and providing the Conservation Register, an online directory of conservation providers (that have to be headed by an Accredited conservator in order to be able to be listed), Icon’s targeted focus is on delivering a National Conservation Education and Skills Strategy (Richmond 2012). This is an ambitious five-year programme to shape the future provision of conservation education, training and research in the United Kingdom, an agenda for the whole conservation sector. Icon wrote the strategy, it has been endorsed by seventeen major cultural heritage organisations, but it is a guide and a map for every organisation, large or small, that wants to change the future of UK conservation.

8The Strategy was launched on the basis of feelings, experiences and expectations within the sector that there was a need to ensure that a successful learning and research environment could be supported in order to ensure that professional conservation had a sustainable future. There was, and still is, a defined employer desire to have competent people coming out of training courses. While the Strategy does not seek to rewrite academic courses, it does seek to make sure that courses are providing the skills and knowledge that conservators need in their working careers, making sure that course providers are more engaged with what employers want and vice versa.

9The rationale behind all of this is the need for skill acquisition to ensure that conservation survives and develops as a profession. Our driver was to focus education on employability, and on demonstrating that skilled people are the best people to have working in conservation.

10The purpose of the strategy is “to foster a successful learning and research environment in the UK that delivers the knowledge, skills and understanding that will be needed in the future” (Richmond 2012, 4), and to do this it sets out three strategic aims: to  

  • Promote development and delivery of conservation education, training and skills as a joint responsibility of all stakeholders, to

  • Map a framework of sustainable career paths that is accessible, coherent, responsive, resilient, and quality assured, and to

  • Raise awareness of conservation as a subject of learning, research and enrichment, as well as a career opportunity.

11In order to reach these three lofty aims, these are supported by no less than sixty-eight specific actions.

12Initial progress was very rapid, and progress against these sixty-eight actions is recorded on the Icon website in a graphic NCESS progress “barometer”, that identifies progress against each of these actions on a nominal scale from ‘not started’ to ‘completed’. At the end of February 2014, this indicated that the delivery of the Strategy was 53.8% complete (after 26 months of the 60 month project timescale – 43.3% of the Strategy’s time period). While progress of outcomes against the timetable is satisfactory, Icon does have to recognise that following initial enthusiasm, such as the establishment of the NCESS stakeholders group and formal endorsement being received from 17 organisations, wider sectoral buy-in has been limited (Icon 2014c) - it has largely been left to Icon to deliver this, but this is reasonable considering Icon’s sectoral role.

Labour Market

13These expectations of the Strategy have now been backed up by the results of Conservation Labour Market Intelligence (Aitchison 2013), a comprehensive survey of the nature of employment and the profile of the conservation workforce across the UK. 

  • 1  It shows that conservators are not representative of the wider community that their work theoretic (...)

14This is the study that estimated that there were 3,175 professional conservators in the UK in 2012-13; most of these people (65%) were women, but the workforce was not diverse; it was drawn from a relatively narrow segment of society with 97% of conservators being white (ibid., 5).1

15The median salary for a professional conservator was £26,000 (= €32.018) (50% earned more than this, 50% less; this meant that they typically earn slightly less than the national median for all occupations (£26,500 = €32.634), and significantly less than the national median for professional occupations (£36,369 = €44.787) (ibid.).

16In comparison with the workforce as a whole, conservators were very highly qualified, with 78% being graduates and 46% holding post-graduate qualifications (ibid.).

17Conservation workplaces were typically very small; 84% of all conservation workplaces had five or fewer conservators working in them (and most of those had only one worker), and conservation employment was relatively evenly distributed between the public, private and civil society (charity / NGO) sectors (ibid., 7). Almost all conservators were in permanent positions, and 23% of them had been in post for over 20 years. This was not a dynamic situation.

18Workplace training is an under-developed area in conservation; while 84% of organisations considered that they identify training needs for individuals, and 81% provided training opportunities, only 42% had a training budget and only 29% had a training plan (ibid., 62). This suggests that whatever training is obtained by working conservators will tend to be opportunistic, ad hoc and ideally without a defined cash cost. This is the situation that was suspected, but not statistically demonstrated, when the NCESS was written, and so has been a condition that the Strategy has been aiming to address – by encouraging the employers of conservators to think more holistically about the value of training their staff, by encouraging individual conservators to think about their own continuing professional development, and by encouraging training providers to align their training offer with the needs of the sector.

19While conservators are very well educated, they are not necessarily appropriately skilled. Conservation skills issues, both in the sense of skills gaps – where current staff aren’t as skilled as they need to be, so there is a demand for training – and in terms of skills shortages, where there just aren’t enough suitably skilled individuals in the workforce and so employers are unable to find people with the right skills for a job (this absence of skills can sometimes be addressed through subcontracting work).

20Skills gaps and shortages were identified in many areas of specialist conservation skills, and also identified widely in areas of transferable professional skills, where serious skills gaps were identified in several areas, such as business skills, leadership, project management and information technology (ibid., 8). In terms of applied conservation skills, data were gathered about skills issues in terms of preventive conservation and interventive conservation across a range of material specialities. In applied conservation there were more skills gaps than skills shortages, and so skills issues tended to have been addressed through investment in staff training rather than by buying in expertise.

Conservation Technician Qualification

21In order to support the broader conservation workforce, Icon developed the Conservation Technician Qualification (CTQ) in 2007.

22This qualification was developed in order to:

  • Develop the diversity of applicants entering the profession.

  • Pave the way for future academic study, professional development and  eventual accreditation.

  • Give technicians a portable and recognised qualification to take to future employers

  • Encourage employers to adopt a common standard for technicians.

  • Recognise the contribution of volunteers to conservation (Icon 2014a).

23This is a qualification obtained in the workplace, through the demonstration of the technical skills required to undertake conservation support activities as well as basic conservation procedures under the supervision and guidance of a conservator. Candidates are assessed by expert assessors, and the qualification is then awarded to successful candidates by Icon.

24This award has been a success, and employers in conservation value it (Aitchison 2013, 63). Action 2-5-10 of the NCESS  is to “Launch and promote new phases of Conservation Technician Qualification”, and Icon is currently in discussions with the Victoria and Albert Museum about how access to the award can be widened, aligning the requirements of this qualification with a separate museums technician qualification in order to create a new collections care technician award.

Conservation in Higher Education

25The NCESS seeks to ensure that “There is greater support for existing provision and qualifications – taught courses, structured e-learning, research, and work-based learning – to increase access, build resilience, and unlock funding streams for both students and employers” (Richmond 2012,8), and one of the routes to this is through academic benchmarking. This is the process by which the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) – an agency that reports to government on safeguarding standards and promoting the interests of higher education in the UK – is able to “set out expectations about standards of degrees in a range of subject areas. They describe what gives a discipline its coherence and identity, and define what can be expected of a graduate in terms of the abilities and skills needed to develop understanding or competence in the subject” (QAA, nd). Icon has brought together statements from academic course providers to confirm that conservation will benefit from such work, and from cognate professional bodies to confirm that there is no academic conflict involved, which have been presented to the QAA who are considering the development of such a standard.

26Helping to facilitate academic benchmarking is an appropriate activity for Icon, which does not – and indeed, cannot – validate individual higher education courses, as this would involve assessment of both course content and teaching quality. In early 2014, Icon mapped out how many different degrees – at undergraduate and postgraduate levels – were being taught in conservation in the UK. In total, 32 courses – all but three of them at post-graduate level – were being taught at thirteen higher education institutes. All of the course providers have been asked if their course teaches students to understand and apply Professional Standards in Conservation, and this is reported on Icon’s website (Icon 2014b).

Icon and E.C.C.O

27These Professional Standards (Icon 2008) are used to measure whether an individual is suitably skilled and sufficiently knowledgeable to be able become PACR Accredited. While the Standards can be used to measure skills and ethical judgement, these are framed by the E.C.C.O Professional Guidelines (E.C.C.O 2004).   

28When Icon was created in 2005 by the convergence of five bodies, some of which were members of E.C.C.O, Icon then became a signatory to the E.C.C.O Professional Guidelines until it left ECCO in 2007. The details of the events leading to Icon’s departure from E.C.C.O are presented in Corr (2014). However, Icon and its members continue to conform to all of the Professional Guidelines with the exception of the clause relating to the level of education required of a professional conservator-restorer (in Section III [ii]). Icon believes that whether someone can be considered to be a professional conservator should rest upon their skills and capabilities at the present, rather than on the basis of academic qualifications they have obtained in the past. Of course, in many cases it is by gaining those academic qualifications that they have become skilled conservators, and this does not intend to demean those awards, simply to recognise that there are other ways to become a conservator.

29Icon would like to re-engage with the discussion about what is needed to become a European professional conservator – whether the important thing is the length of time spent undertaking advanced academic study, or whether professionalism can be judged on the basis of demonstrated competence, knowledge and ethical commitment.

European Cooperation

30There are routes to have cooperation supported – the European Union seeks to “ensure that Europe’s cultural heritage is safeguarded and enhanced” (EU 1992, article 3.3) and that it will do this by “encouraging cooperation between Member States and, if necessary, supporting and supplementing their action” in the field of culture (EU 2008, article 167).

31An example from archaeology where this is being done is in the Discovering the Archaeologists of Europe 2014 project (YAT 2014), which is being supported by the European Commission’s Lifelong Learning Programme. This project, which involves 23 partner organisations from 21 European states (19 of them within the European Union), is looking at employment in professional archaeology and skills issues, particularly in response to the economic changes that have affected Europe since 2008. This is being done under the “New Skills for New Jobs” policy, which sets out to “Promote better anticipation of future skills needs, develop better matching between skills and labour market needs [and to] bridge the gap between the worlds of education and work” (EC 2008).

32While the Discovering the Archaeologists of Europe 2014 project will report on the situation in that professional sector in each of the partner countries and at a continental level in the autumn of 2014, that funding stream is no longer available from the European Commission as the Commission is now in a new seven-year funding cycle.  However, this new financial framework brings new opportunities. Within Creative Europe, the new culture and audiovisual programme (that has replaced the Culture Programme, and before that Culture 2000), there is a definite and realistic opportunity for a new approach to European cooperation.  

33The Creative Europe - Culture Sub-Programme – Support for European Platforms (EC 2013) funding stream is a very tightly defined prospect that will aim to provide for lasting effects within defined cultural sectors. Where appropriate, the “creation of a European quality label” will be one of the things that this might support in the context of implementing joint activities between organisations that are members of the platform; each Platform could receive €500,000 per year from the European Commission to deliver this over a two to four-year period.

34There will be very few European Platform projects; “only a limited number of platforms will be supported, with a view to getting a balanced coverage across different cultural and creative sectors. The intention is not therefore to support numerous platforms within the same sector” (ibid. 4). There will not be more than one European Platform within any particular cultural sector; there could only be one in conservation. There will also be very few opportunities to apply for this; judging by the published budget (ibid., 5), there are likely to be only 18 such Platforms over the seven years of the Creative Europe programme, and there will only be opportunities to apply in 2014, 2015 and 2016.

35The scope and the opportunity is there for organisations that teach conservation and that represent the interests of conservators, whether they are or are not members of ENCoRE or E.C.C.O, to cooperate and work together to build capacity and to promote the work of conservators across Europe.  Such a project could both support the better definition and recognition of conservation, by contributing towards the formal acceptance and establishment of the European Recommendation for the Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Heritage (E.C.C.O 2008) and could also contribute beyond the European level to promote global standards and the embedding of best practice – ICOMOS considers that “organising collaborative networks of individuals and institutions for the exchange of ideas and opinions on approaches to education and training” is one of the requirements for capacity building in conservation of cultural heritage (ICOMOS-CIF 2013, 3).

36If ambition is found to match this opportunity, then the potential to increase the recognition received by conservators for their work is very real.

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[accessed 20th August 2014]

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1  It shows that conservators are not representative of the wider community that their work theoretically benefits

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Electronic reference

Kenneth Aitchison, “Building Bridges and Conserving Culture”CeROArt [Online], HS | 2014, Online since 01 October 2014, connection on 22 April 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Kenneth Aitchison

Kenneth Aitchison is a cultural heritage professional with extensive experience of working for professional associations in the areas of skills and development. He is also an entrepreneur and business owner, with a strong commitment to European projects and initiatives. He was awarded his PhD in 2011 for work on the labour market in archaeology. Skills Strategy Manager: Icon, the Institute of Conservation

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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