A conservator assesing a weight taken from an open painted wooden box with a mirror inside.

Conservation

Contact us

Department of Collection Care – Conservation
The British Museum
Great Russell Street
London WC1B 3DG

Our conservation specialists preserve the Museum's Collection through a combination of preventive, interventive and analytical techniques.

Conservation contributes to our knowledge of the collections in aspects of manufacture, meaning and context. Working alongside curators, scientists and researchers, we've revealed many new discoveries.

By understanding a wide range of materials found in archaeological, historical and contemporary works, and the mechanisms by which objects deteriorate, we can address their stabilisation and long-term preservation.

We use a combination of old and new techniques. Some conservation practice is grounded in long-standing tradition and we also innovate and develop new conservation techniques and approaches.

We're unable to carry out treatment on non-British Museum collections. Please check the Conservation Register website, operated by the Institute of Conservation (Icon) for approved professionally qualified conservators.

Our work

As conservators we: 

  • Use our professional knowledge and expertise to help the Museum deliver:
    • A full public programme including exhibitions, gallery developments and international touring shows
    • Object loans
    • The Portable Antiquities Scheme
  • Preserve the collection for the future through preventive conservation measures.
  • Develop conservation treatments and increase knowledge of the Museum's collection through an active conservation research programme.
  • Contribute to the development of the profession through participation in national and international working groups and organisations and by setting conservation standards for others to follow.
  • Contribute to the training and development of present and future conservators through work placements, masterclasses and exchanges.

Conservation at the Museum is made up of many specialisms, which are outlined below. 

    Our work 2

    Collaboration and engagement

    Conservation works with many regional, national and international partners to provide consultancy, advice and skills sharing. Our conservators: 

    • Contribute to conservation and collection care training courses such as the Iraq and International training programmes. 
    • Play a central role in the Portable Antiquities Scheme, assisting with site excavation and processing potential Treasure.
    • Collaborate with artists, makers, and indigenous and local communities – this informs conservation treatments and leads to a valuable exchange of knowledge about the collections. 

    Collaboration and engagement 2

    We regularly highlight our work through: 

    • Public gallery talks and lectures
    • Blogs
    • Events like 'Zoom In', which is held during British Science Week
    • Behind-the-scenes visits to the Conservation studios for Museum Members 

    In September, the display case in the Museum Members Room will showcase our innovative work on laser cleaning archaeological terracotta and limestone objects, during the Centenary celebrations of Conservation and Scientific Research at the Museum.

    Research

    Combining knowledge and skills in art, craft, science, engineering, computer-based technologies and imaging techniques, Conservation has a unique and significant contribution to make to the Museum's Research Strategy. Conservation and Collection Care research focuses on three main themes: 

    To find new materials and develop new techniques to conserve and preserve the collection. This includes investigation into more effective, bespoke, and 'green' conservation materials. 

    To develop systems and methodologies that reduce or mitigate risk to collection items when they're on display, on loan or in storage. For example, researching the impact of vibration on collection items during transport to inform the development of improved packing cases to protect them when they're used for loans and touring exhibitions. 

    Research 2

    Research into original materials and techniques to study them and learning about how objects deteriorate. For example, this would include investigation of deteriorated surfaces on stone monuments to understand how they were originally decorated in colour.

    These three research themes aim to: 

    • Expand the understanding and care of the collection
    • Contribute to the Museum's overarching aims and objectives 
    • Increase public access to the Museum's collection  

    Conservators actively disseminate their work through presentations at national and international conferences, and by publishing in peer-reviewed professional journals.  

    Find out more about our conservation research projects on the World History Lab.

    History of Conservation

    18th century

    Cleaning, repair and mounting of the collection and new acquisitions were carried out in workshops attached to individual antiquity departments by artisan restorers working under the instruction of curators. 

    Early 19th century

    A mounting system for graphic art in standard cream-coloured mount-board was developed in the early 19th century, under William Holkham Carpenter, Keeper of Prints and Drawings. It's now in use across the world.

    1840s – 1850s

    John Doubleday was the Museum's first permanently employed restorer. He became known for reconstructing the Portland vase in 1845 after it was shattered by a vandal. In the 1850s, William May Scott introduced the 'sunk' mount with a bevelled window for mounting graphic art.

    1910s

    Japanese materials and scroll-mounting techniques were introduced for restoring Asian paintings by the Head Restorer of Prints and Drawings, Stanley Littlejohn, and the Japanese print-maker Urushibara Mokuchu.

    1920s

    A small research laboratory was set up at the Museum by scientist Alexander Scott to investigate and conserve objects damaged by damp, after they were stored in underground tunnels during World War I. In 1924, Scott was joined by Harold Plenderleith. Together they went on to lay the foundations of museum science and conservation – including preventive conservation – and were in the vanguard of international pioneers in conservation. 

    1930s – 1950s

    Fundamental texts on applied treatment methods for organic and inorganic objects were published by Plenderleith in 1934 and 1956. From the 1950s, conservators received specialist training from the UCL Institute of Archaeology and at the Museum.

    1960s – 1970s

    During the 1960s, protocols were published by the restorer Cyril Bateman and the scientist Robert Organ for an innovative treatment regime for cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia, that was later used around the world. From the 1970s, conservators received specialist training at Camberwell College.

    1973

    The Oddy test for the emission of acidic gasses was developed by the conservation scientist Andrew Oddy to test materials for use around museum objects. 

    1975

    The Department of Conservation was created. Conservators were divided by material specialisation for the first time and they worked closely with designated scientists on object treatment and storage research. Decisions were now taken collaboratively by conservators, scientists and archaeologists/art historians. The Department was at the forefront of the development and application of modern conservation principles, ethics, work protocols and procedures. 

    1983 – 1994

    The East Asian paintings conservation facility was set up in 1983 in a basement studio at 43 Russell Square, by Paul Wills, who was soon joined by Jin Xian Qiu. Both conservators were trained in Japan and China. This facility was superseded in 1994 by the opening of the spacious Hirayama Conservation Studio that has become a renowned centre for the conservation of East Asian paintings.
    Working at the Hirayama Studio

    1996

    The Treasure Act was passed in 1996. This Act legally obliges the finder of an object that is considered to be Treasure to report their find. Managed by the British Museum, the Treasure and Portable Antiquities Scheme was established to record such finds. The Museum acts as a central hub in England for investigating, identifying and conserving finds made by the public. 
    Treasure and Portable Antiquities Scheme

    2014 – now

    Conservation (except for the Hirayama Studio) moved into specialist studios and labs in the World Conservation and Exhibition Centre where it remains at the forefront of preventive collection care, treatment and research. It embraces non-invasive methods of investigation and care, as well as modern treatment techniques, such as laser cleaning, 3D and CT scanning and nanotechnology.

    Conservation placements at the Museum

    • If you're interested in training as a conservator, please find existing academic and work-based training options on the Institute of Conservation (Icon) website.
    • Unfortunately we don't offer conservation training courses at the British Museum.
    • Conservation does provide some placements for students attending recognised conservation courses, nationally and internationally.
    • The minimum period for a placement is usually eight weeks.
    • There are also occasional opportunities for mid-career professional development for practicing conservators from other public institutions. 
    • Please note that all placements are unpaid and students/conservators must cover their own costs.
    • Conservation is unable to provide work experience for secondary school students.

    How to apply
    If you're interested in a student or mid-career development placement within Conservation, please email conservation@britishmuseum.org outlining your areas of interest and your availability. Please note that you need to apply for a placement at least six months in advance of when you wish to start.

    Current Vacancies
    All paid posts in Conservation that are open to external applicants will be advertised on the Museum's jobs page. We also advertise in professional conservation journals and on relevant websites and email distribution lists.