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Introducing… Icon: the expert care & repair shop

Q - Who protects ancient bones, tiny books and wild rubber dresses, with the help of parasitic wasps (eek!) whilst trying to avoid creating a monkey on the way?

A - Conservators. Nope, nothing to do with building glass houses, though they may help protect them! Conservators are the doctors and nurses of our heritage, using their encyclopaedic knowledge to keep our treasures shining for future generations. Here to introduce us to their work is Sara Crofts, Chief Executive of Icon, the Institute of Conservation.

A curious cat in need of some TLC - time to call a conservator!

Written by… Sara Crofts, Chief Executive, Icon (The Institute of Conservation)

What exactly is conservation?

The conservation of objects and collections protects the things people value. It enables the care and safeguarding of our tangible cultural heritage, from cherished family heirlooms to national treasures.

The practice of conservation encompasses artworks, books, architecture and archaeology, as well as industrial, natural and social history collections whether they are held by museums, heritage organisations, private collectors or public collections.

Conservation professionals value and understand the physical artefacts that embody our collective history and culture; skilfully safeguarding it against decay and neglect to ensure that everyone’s stories survive for the inspiration of present and future generations.

A clothes moth - beautiful but one of The Enemies of conservators! / © Olaf Leillinger (Creative Commons)

So what does a conservator do?

Conservators combine practical and analytical skills with knowledge of art history, architecture, science, changing fashions and lifestyles to understand the context of the objects they work with. This provides a foundation from which to make decisions about how to conserve the objects sensitively and appropriately. Some of our members work as conservation managers or preventive conservators and have responsibility for looking after an entire collection; others focus on the assessment and treatment of objects within a particular specialism. Conservators deal with objects of all shapes and sizes from tiny Hebraic scrolls no bigger than a little finger to entire dinosaur skeletons; from old masters to the Trump blimp; and from the intricate treasures of the Galloway Hoard to a complete ship.

Conservators are also continually involved in a battle against pests – household visitors such as clothes moths have the potential to do a lot of damage to vulnerable fabrics and their numbers are increasing as climate change takes hold in the UK. But I’m happy to report that conservators working for the National Trust are at the forefront of innovative new treatments, and are currently piloting the use of parasitic wasps to control moth numbers at Blickling Hall in Norfolk. There’s also lots of interesting ongoing research into ways to make conservation practices more ‘green’ through reducing the use of harmful solvents and plastics for example.

Conservators at work / © Southchurch Hall, National Trust, University of Lincoln, Lancashire Conservation Studios

Where do conservators work?

Many conservators work for public institutions such as national and regional museums or galleries, archives and libraries, or in historic properties. Others are employed by private conservation studios and conservation contractors. Some operate as freelancers, running their own microbusinesses. In recent years, the scope of conservators’ work has widened, and so you might also find conservators involved with exhibitions, conservation science, location management for TV and film-making, project management and advocacy work.

Where does Icon come in?

Icon is a charitable company working to safeguard cultural heritage and is also the professional membership body for the conservation profession. As a charity Icon has a duty to promote the conservation of items and collections of items of cultural, aesthetic, historic and scientific value. A lot of our communications work is about sharing great stories about the work that conservators do and the discoveries they make. Have you watched The Repair Shop? If so, then you might enjoy our series of stories about real-life conservation – The REAL Repair Shop

Icon supports 24 specialist interest groups and networks reflecting the range of different conservation specialisms and the number continues to grow as different challenges arise. Two of our newest networks are focussed on Contemporary Art and Modern Materials. Soon after I joined Icon in 2019 I was invited to visit the textile stores of the V&A museum where a Vivienne Westwood dress with a wild rubber bodice was about to undergo conservation treatment. This was proving to be a real challenge for the textile conservation team as the wild rubber is a natural material that breaks down over time and is therefore difficult to stabilise.

The deterioration of 'Ecce Homo' after 2 rounds of work - why working with an accredited conservator matters! / © Cea+ (Creative Commons)

Beware the monkey!

While a great deal of conservation work takes place quietly and without much fuss, stories about “botched” conservation jobs sometimes hit the media headlines. Do you remember the colourful sculpture of St George or Ecce Homo, which  was renamed ‘Behold the Monkey’? Apart from generating a great deal of online amusement – and swelling visitor numbers – these incidents raise interesting questions about how we ensure that our treasures are appropriately cared for. Many people are surprised to learn that the conservation profession is not regulated and that anyone can practice as a conservator, or a restorer. So how does Icon help?

'Conservation Conversations' - look out for events like this over Heritage Open Days / © University of Cambridge

Meet the experts

Icon fulfils the role of self-regulation of the conservation profession in the UK though the formal accreditation of our members and the use of a mandatory Code of Conduct. Becoming an Accredited Conservator-Restorer (ACR) demonstrates to clients, employers and peers that an individual has an in-depth knowledge of good conservation practice and Icon’s professional standards, a high degree of technical competence, and perhaps most importantly sound judgement and ethics.

The best place to start your search for an Accredited Conservator-Restorer (ACR) is our Conservation Register. This Register is a complete list of all the Icon Accredited members in our organisation. The Register can be searched by objects or material type (stone, paper, glass etc.) or there is a separate search for collections management services. We also offer a resource hub for people who want to find out more about looking after the objects that they have in their homes or in their local museums. And if you have any questions we’re more than happy to point you in the best direction at any time!

Find out more

Read more about some of the conservation stories Sara mentions:

Sara Crofts

About Sara Crofts

Sara is Icon’s Chief Executive and is responsible for strategic planning and implementation, internal operations and external relations. She manages the staff team and works closely with the Board of Trustees and Board committees. Sara trained as an architect at Edinburgh College of Art, specialising in building conservation and is a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts as well as a Council Member of Europa Nostra.