Who is a conservator? What is conservation? Evolving our identities and practice to thrive in an inclusive world

by Joelle Wickens and Natalya Swanson

Who is a conservator? What is conservation? The answers to these questions are not written in an eternal text, carved in stone, and unequivocal. The answers represent choices we have and will continue to make. 

The momentous events of the past year, and the ongoing social reckoning that continues, call us to stop dancing around issues we have been discussing for years, like: why is our field so homogenous? It is because we have made it that way. We have created a community that narrowly defines what we do and how we do it. We have written our code of ethics and guidelines for practice to prioritize property over people. By giving ourselves the privilege of being able to touch and change art we have made ourselves special. To retain this status we have set up an exclusive path of entry into our field.

The good news is, while we have the power to keep things as they are, we also have the agency to adapt to fit the needs of contemporary society. Today, we ask you to join us in embracing change and welcoming the idea that our field requires a diversity of approaches, solutions, and peoples. Over the next ten minutes we will share ideas that prioritize inclusivity, sustainable thinking, and the belief that conservation is, at its core, the dynamic and intentional process of caring for what is valued.

There are many definitions and descriptions of who a conservator is and what conservation encompasses. Today we will work with two taken from AIC’s own ‘What is conservation?’ page. These two definitions are in clear contradiction. Conservation practice cannot encompass all actions to preserve cultural heritage, and be reserved for only a small group of highly trained experts. If conservators do conservation, and conservation includes all actions taken towards the long-term preservation of cultural heritage, then technicians, HVAC engineers, cemetery groundskeepers, and many others are all doing conservation. It is time to celebrate when news articles refer to us as conservationists for they too are taking actions toward the long-term preservation of cultural heritage. It is time to admit you do not need to attend graduate school and have extensive training in art history, science and studio art to be doing conservation. All these people we mention do not need to adopt the title of conservator. We need to change our understanding of conservation. We need to recognize that as we seek to conserve cultural heritage, the work of all these people is essential. We need them here with us. It is time to welcome them as full members of AIC.

There is another contradiction with our definition of a conservator when we consider UNESCO’s definition of cultural heritage. If heritage does not always take a physical form, why do we limit conservators to ‘sav[ing] cultural heritage physically’? We can rectify this contradiction in two obvious ways. We can limit conservation practice to only preserving physical objects, or we can recognize the interconnected nature of heritage and broaden the definition of what we conserve. What does it mean to broaden our definitions though? We have all experienced one way of preserving tangible heritage, but if cultural heritage includes intangible forms then someone recording oral history or carrying on an oral tradition is doing conservation. If the natural environment is cultural heritage then environmental conservators are doing heritage conservation. We can take this a step further by recognizing that, in reality, these three forms of heritage are not siloed and it is impossible for us to preserve one form without conserving the others. As with the first contradiction, this also suggests the conservation community is already much broader than what we currently say and it’s time to create a thriving, multi-disciplinary AIC.

Let’s explore how we as individuals, and we as AIC, will benefit if we adopt this broad definition of conservation. Natalya and I have identified many positive outcomes. Today, we present them to you in three broad points.

Point 1

If we accept that conservators are not a homogeneous group with extensive training in art history, science, and studio art, we gain the ability to welcome a wide variety of people into our professional network. With this change we become more inclusive with regard to the people who conserve heritage.

If we want to welcome a wide variety of people into our professional network, we will need to create a community where everyone feels valued and essential. To do this, we need to make changes on individual and institutional levels. Let’s start with what we can change today.

We can shift our mentality to be more inclusive. We can acknowledge that professionalism is achievable regardless of training, academic credentials, and job description. We believe AIC membership as a whole should reject our current approach to differentiating members by level and type of experience. This hierarchical system upholds a culture of elitism and benefits only those in positions of privilege. Instead, AIC should offer one multidisciplinary membership category that welcomes and respects professionals with various backgrounds, beliefs and training models. This community can then become and remain dynamic and relevant through an ever-modifying system of networks.

If we then pair this shift in mentality with a professional advocacy campaign to dismantle the enormous socioeconomic barriers to enter and stay in the field we will see real change. This includes acknowledging that currently, unless someone has impeccable emotional and physical health, can survive without health insurance, and work beyond a well-balanced work week, they are not likely to survive or flourish in our profession. If they can not move their lives for a poorly compensated temporary contract, and dedicate their evenings and weekends for “professional development” we perceive them as insufficiently dedicated to the profession. We must hold each other accountable to dismantling the culture of unpaid labour that permeates every aspect of our field and recognize that we have the agency to change our culture of exclusion and elitism to one of compassion and accessibility. Doing this will not be easy, but an inclusive and equitable AIC, fit to lead in the 21st century, can be the end result. Joelle and I believe the results are worth the effort it will take to get there.

Point 2

If we accept that it is a conservator’s responsibility to preserve all forms of heritage (tangible, intangible, and natural), we gain the ability to expand the ways we think about and approach our work. With this change we move beyond the material and become more inclusive of the heritage we preserve.

The evolution of our training, and by extension, how we view our professional selves has led to the dominant current approach to conservation. We place the physical object, and what we can learn from studying its materiality, at the top of the heritage hierarchy. We use inductive reasoning, where tangible heritage is approached through the scientific process, to understand these objects. This in turn promotes that our work is objective and neutral; it is free of bias, preference, and subjective interpretation. This is not the case. All decisions give priority to a certain set of values. For example, when we choose to use the adhesive B-72, we are valuing physical longevity and stability over other factors, such as the environmental and health impacts of the resources needed to create and use the synthetic adhesive. When we decide to consolidate an object that was originally intended to deteriorate, we are prioritizing the physical object and its potential as property over a community’s intention for the object to decay and disappear.

Admitting that our current approach to conservation is neither objective or neutral, and that we must move beyond materiality, opens the door to radically changing the way we approach our work. We can add to our use of the scientific method other ways to understand heritage. We can look at things through a systems thinking lens, a lens of spiritual awareness, a lens of anti-racism, of value-based decision making, and experiential learning. Adopting these alternative approaches will naturally result in new strategies for conserving heritage and invites us to use new ways to record our process. We can shift away from writing as though we are documenting uncontested and unadulterated facts and move toward transparent communication about how our personal and shared biases and preferences affect our decisions. We can greatly broaden with whom we collaborate, where we apply for funding, and where we share our findings. What we can gain from shifting away from fine art conservation to holistic collection care is only as limited as our imagination.

Point 3

If we accept that this diverse group of people conserving a vast expanse of cultural heritage exists within complex, intertwining systems, we gain the freedom to admit that best practices are situational rather than universal. With this change we become more inclusive of the ways heritage is preserved.

Currently, our definition of best practice is as narrow and exclusive as our field. We, those taught to use the scientific process to understand cultural heritage and guide our practice of care, have shaped our work around this belief: with few exceptions, once an object is identified as worthy of preservation, any care of and particularly change to that object, not carried out or sanctioned by us, the conservators, is unacceptable, for we know what is best for the object. If we say an object can not be exhibited, because doing so will cause it to visibly fade, we expect our word to be final. Keeping an object from fading on our watch, no matter how much we have to limit access, is what we consider best practice. If an object is likely to visibly change when exposed to pollutants, and we find a way to completely protect it, this becomes best practice, no matter the financial cost to implement it. If we find a packing material that is inert, using it is best practice, no matter what impact producing it has on the environment. 

Shifting from an object-centered practice to holistic collection care requires us to evolve our understanding of best practices. With our much more integrated team, we will naturally shift to a more inclusive approach that not only considers the physical object, its condition, and possibilities for stabilizing it, but also the values of the people who care for it; the mission, capabilities, and geographic location of the stewards or institution; the accessibility of local materials and the impact of those materials on community members and the natural environment. Material heritage exists within these interconnected systems and there is a choice that supports the healthy functioning of all of them at a particular moment in time. A situational and sustainable choice is the right choice, the best choice. This approach gives every individual and institution the possibility of doing what is best for cultural heritage. No longer do we set standards that keep almost everyone else out. We throw open the doors and let everyone in. We help them see that a careful choice, made within the context of their ‘environments’ is the best they can do for their cultural heritage.



This work is the culmination of many years of thinking, talking, and reflecting. It would not be possible without the support of our family, colleagues, and friends. In particular, we thank Anisha Gupta, Laura Mina, and Jill Sterrett; faculty, staff, and students at the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation; and conservation staff at the Brooklyn Museum for the thoughtful feedback. Thank you to the University of Delaware for startup funds to create the beta version of this platform and to the selection committee at the American Institute for Conservation for providing us a forum to present this content. Many thanks also to Daniel Miller, our very patient web developer, for collaborating with us to create this platform.