By Karen Trentelman

"How did you get into conservation science?" is probably one of the most frequently asked questions of scientists working in the area of cultural heritage. And the answers to that question are as varied as the field itself. The tremendous diversity of materials to be studied and issues to be resolved in conservation science draws people from a wide variety of scientific backgrounds, including physics, chemistry, materials science, geology, and biology. Indeed, as increasing numbers of people enter the field, the various routes into conservation science—and the amount of education and training that should be required for people entering the field—have become subjects of discussion and debate. But regardless of the route an individual has taken, the impetus is typically the same: a passion to understand and preserve our cultural heritage.

Conservation science is not a well-established field in the same manner as traditional scientific disciplines such as physics, chemistry, or materials science. Neither can it be classified as a subdiscipline of one of these fields, such as condensed matter physics, organometallic chemistry, or nanomaterials. In some ways, conservation science is more difficult to define.

conservation image

In general, the work of conservation scientists includes authentication, art-historical research, and conservation-related research. Although authentication may be the easiest to understand because it supports purchases and the assignment of value to objects (or perhaps because of the success of the Antiques Roadshow tele­vision program), it is not the primary focus of most conservation science studies. More frequently, studies of the materials and methods used to create works of art are carried out with the goal of contributing to the understanding of artists' work and its significance within an art-historical or cultural context. Conservation-related research includes studies in the behavior and stability (or lack thereof) of the materials that compose works of art, and the development of materials and methodologies to counteract, or at least to mitigate, deterioration. This last activity might best earn the name conservation science, although any activity that advances the understanding of a work of art can be considered to aid in its subsequent preservation.

Because of this breadth of activity, conservation science draws from nearly all areas of physical science, as well as arts and humanities disciplines, such as art conservation, archaeology, and art history. It demands that its practitioners be familiar with the materials and methods used to create works of art in nearly every culture and time period throughout history, understand the properties and behavior of those materials as they age, and develop strategies to prevent or slow their deterioration.

Entering the Field

Perhaps the most common route into conservation science has been to obtain an advanced degree in one of the established scientific disciplines and then to apply that training to the study of works of art. Although most science programs do not specifically teach conservation science applications, they do promote critical thinking and creative problem solving—essential tools for any good scientist. Graduate-level research, in particular, teaches and encourages independent thinking, the application of the scientific method, the development of research strategies, the ability to critically interpret the significance of results, and the skills to effectively communicate findings. Given the broad scope of questions asked of most conservation scientists, these adaptive skills may be more important than proficiency with a particular technique or methodology.

conservation image

Some argue that training in just one of the traditional scientific disciplines may not be sufficient for the highly specialized and diverse application of conservation science. However, most scientists do not end up working in the area of specialization they chose in school but, rather, adapt the skills they learned during their studies and develop new skills for whatever the application and their employment demand. Conservation science and the study of materials important to works of artistic and cultural significance may similarly be viewed as another area to which science is applied. There is a long history of this approach, as exemplified by the series of seminars entitled Application of Science in Examination of Works of Art, begun in 1958 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Adaptation of new scientific methodologies to the study of works of art is still a very important aspect of the field, as evidenced by the recent advances made in instrumentation which either enable the examination of works of art noninvasively (as with Raman microscopy) or provide a means of getting better information out of smaller samples, as with newly developed pyrolysis gas chromotography–mass spectrometry (GC-MS) techniques.

It is generally accepted that some degree of formal scientific training is a necessary prerequisite for entry into the field. But there is considerable debate as to how much education should be required. A Ph.D. is becoming an increasingly common requirement for conservation science positions, even for entry-level positions. Determining whether or not this is appropriate depends, in part, on how success in the field is measured.

Measuring Success

One of the difficulties of measuring success in conservation science is that it is a hybrid field—a blend of "pure" research traditionally associated with university-based laboratories and "applied" research typically conducted in industrial-based laboratories. Although the division between these traditional approaches to research is becoming blurred—as funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation increasingly support the development of joint academic-industrial research centers and require that research programs not only have intellectual merit but a broader impact as well—the measures of success for scientists working in either academia or industry are still clearly defined. However, most conservation scientists do not work in either a purely academic or purely industrial environment. They may be based in museums, research institutions, or even private laboratories. As such, the criteria for measuring success in conservation science have not yet been clearly defined for the field as a whole.

In academia, success is measured by the number of publications produced and the ability to generate external funding. In order to be successful in these endeavors, a Ph.D.—and an association with a recognized research institution—are generally necessary. Reviewers of publications and grant applications need to evaluate the qualifications of the applicant quickly. If they are not familiar with the field (and most scientists in traditional disciplines are not aware of conservation science) then a doctorate in a recognized discipline provides them with a benchmark by which to assess the applicant. Publication in mainstream scientific journals tends to be dominated by academic researchers, as is success in competing for grants from national agencies. However, it is not an exclusive club. Scientific journals such as Analytical Chemistry and Analytica Chimica Acta frequently publish articles relating to conservation science. In addition, the National Science Foundation—in particular its Division of Materials Research—has recently funded grants supporting the acquisition and development of instrumentation to be used for conservation science projects.

In industrial-based research laboratories, such as those in pharmaceutical, defense, or chemical development companies, success is generally based on results and the ability of the research to improve the company's bottom line. There is more room for individuals with varying levels of education in an industrial or corporate setting than there is in academia, although promotion and the ability to direct research rather than simply to execute it generally correlate with the level of education. Furthermore, corporations will frequently assist their employees in obtaining more education to further their careers within the company.

One of the difficulties in conservation science is that, as a blended field, it measures success following both of the above models. The discovery of new phenomena and dissemination to the broader field are as valued as studies of individual works of art that may impact their preservation, exhibition, or (in extreme cases) value. However, a conservation scientist's success may also be measured by his or her ability to interact successfully with conservators, curators, and art historians and to contribute to the understanding and interpretation of works of art. This attribute, which perhaps is one of the more challenging aspects of conservation science, is also the one that is least likely to be learned through a traditional scientific education program.

Options for Training

conservation image

The traditional route for scientists to gain experience in areas outside their field of graduate study is through postdoctoral fellowships. There are a few postgraduate programs through which scientists may receive additional, specialized training in conservation science, including long-standing programs such as the Charles Culpepper Fellowships offered through the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and individual advanced training fellowships awarded to museums and cultural institutions through agencies such as the Kress Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. It is encouraging that additional ongoing programs have recently been established, including the conservation science postdoctoral programs at the Harvard University Art Museums and the Getty Conservation Institute, although more such programs are certainly needed

Over the last decade, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of available conservation science positions, due to attrition as well as to the creation of new positions. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, in particular, through the efforts of its program officer Angelica Zander Rudenstine, has been pivotal in increasing support for conservation science and in the creation of several new conservation science positions at museums and cultural institutions in the United States. Whereas perhaps there used to be only one conservation scientist at an institution, there now may be several. Consequently, institutions are faced with the task of standardizing educational and experience requirements for hiring and promotion.

As mentioned earlier, a doctoral degree is increasingly becoming a requirement for entry into the field. Without question, the field can only benefit from having well-trained scientists among its ranks. While a Ph.D. program does not guarantee the ability to think critically and creatively, it does provide some measure for judging otherwise unknown applicants. Furthermore, having more Ph.D.-level scientists may enable the field as a whole to compete more successfully with academic scientists to publish in mainstream journals and, more important, to obtain external funding.

However, some of today's foremost conservation scientists do not hold Ph.D.s but have developed their skills on the job. Not surprisingly, many believe that it would be a mistake to insist on hiring only Ph.D.s, thereby closing the avenues that have been used by many skilled conservation scientists in the past. In order for the field to benefit from the contributions of such individuals in the future, it has been suggested that the industrial model be followed more closely—to bring in individuals with various levels of education and to encourage those who show promise, in part by supporting them with additional formal training as appropriate.

Is it possible, or even reasonable, to establish a single set of professional standards for a field as complex and diverse as conservation science? There is, of course, no simple answer to this question. Conservation science needs creative scientists from a variety of backgrounds. But we must be careful not to create a set of prerequisites that constrains the field to growth in only one direction. By keeping in mind the particular needs of this special field and by taking what is most appropriate from the academic, industrial, and museum models, we may create our own definition of success and, in doing so, ensure a field that is creative, vigorous, forward looking, and respected. We must attract talented, well-trained scientists to join the field, while maintaining a mechanism for mentoring promising young scientists developing within the field. We must establish collaborations with mainstream science and encourage technology transfer, while simultaneously keeping a vigorous connection with the disciplines conservation science supports and relies on, such as art history, archaeology, and, of course, conservation itself. We must engage the support of other areas of science by disseminating our research to wider audiences through publication and presentations, while remaining mindful of the needs of our ultimate commitment—the cultural heritage itself.

Karen Trentelman is a senior scientist with the Getty Conservation Institute.