The Issue of Diversity in the Field of The Issue of Diversity in the Field of
22 September 2022

The Issue of Diversity in the Field of Conservation

Written by: Leah Palmer

The field of art conservation has long been an economically gatekept community: one that, by its very nature, has generally allowed only the independently wealthy to enter.

This starts at the beginning of one’s career journey and impacts prospective conservators at every step. Art conservation is a niche field, with few undergraduate students aware of its existence. This lack of general knowledge hinders students from taking the courses that are prerequisites for art conservation graduate programs, such as organic chemistry, studio art, and/or art history. Many conservators learn about the field only after graduating college, and therefore end up having to pay for extra classes to prepare properly for grad school. In addition to this, 4 of the 5 American conservation graduate programs require ostensibly hundreds (but in reality, thousands) of hours of “preprogram experience”, which has most often come in the form of unpaid internships. Organizations that host these internships can also be opaque and unhelpful when communicating about finances to prospective interns. There is a tendency in the field to be secretive about the money (or lack thereof) involved in internships. Hopeful conservators also expect to apply to graduate programs at least twice, if not more times, as the field is so competitive that graduate cohorts are sometimes comprised of less than 10 students. After these multiple financial and time-based hurdles serve to weed out people who are not generationally or independently wealthy individuals, ensuring that the field, according to a study done by the Mellon Foundation in 2015, remain woefully and homogeneously white. 

Like every field, conservation is the poorer for being so monolithic. Conservators have responsibilities that require a sensitivity to and knowledge of various non-white cultures. For example, the National Park often works with ethnographic and archeological materials from Native American nations. Some conservation treatments of these objects require communication with those people groups, in an effort to understand the best method of treatment that will both keep the object stable for future display, and be respectful of the object’s intended use. Having conservators from various cultural backgrounds is essential as we are trying to grow both more skilled in preserving cultural heritage and more aware of the importance of maintaining the ideological integrity of a piece. 

In thinking about the lack of diversity of the field of conservation, I’ve seen the importance of organizations like the Hispanic Access Foundation, and the National Council for Preservation Education, both of which provide funding for conservation internships to people who would not otherwise be able to accrue preprogram internship experience. As this field grows more prominent, it is my hope that museums and other cultural institutions choose to provide more consistent funding for conservation interns of diverse backgrounds, ensuring that the field grows more and more culturally knowledgeable. 

Agency: National Park Service


Location: Harpers Ferry Center for Media Services

MANO Project
is an initiative of Hispanic 
Access Foundation.

P: (202) 640-4342