Preparation for a career in textile conservation

Sarah Lowengard
February, 1995

Below is a sort of boilerplate that I use when people write (or call) me about "breaking into" textile conservation. I was membership secretary of an organization called The Textile Conservation Group about 8 or so years ago, and still receive queries regularly. You should keep in mind that these are my views and opinions. Other conservators you talk to might (probably will) have other ideas. If you have other, more specific questions I'd be happy to try to answer them.

I strongly recommend some internship experience before making any final commitment to textile conservation. Even with a background in a related area, conservation can be intellectually, physically and emotionally very far removed from anything you've ever done before, and internships give you some sense of what it's like to do this work before you've made a major commitment. If you can manage it, I also recommend several internships, at least one in another area of conservation, and definitely in different kinds of labs. I know, though that funding for this early training is difficult to come by. Occasionally pre-program internships will provide a stipend, but it depends on where and when. You might be able to find some funding from an outside foundation, but you'd have to search that out yourself.

Other preparation you can be doing now is paying visits to conservation labs. Dumb (and time consuming) as this may seem, it's a good way to get a sense of the range of the discipline, and to talk informally to a number of people about their experiences in the field.

A graduate degree may not be so important if you want to work as an independent textile conservator, and don't care much about participating in some aspects of professional life. Still, having been through one of the programs is a good idea these days. I didn't do it, but I apprenticed more than fifteen years ago and things were quite different then. If you think you will want to work in or for museums or other institutions (especially institutions dependent on grants for conservation funding), then a graduate degree in conservation really is a requirement--I have a number of friends (some with MAs in other, related fields) who have been passed over for museum jobs in favor of less experienced conservators who had been through programs. And graduate school does provide an element of networking that could be invaluable.

But--and this is a big but--the AIC limits its acknowledgement of conservation training programs to nine schools. These are

Of these, NYU, Winterthur and Queen's are the only schools that offer majors or specialization in textiles, and neither takes many conservation students, no matter their intended sub-specialty. There are other textile and/or costume conservation training programs--at the Fashion Institute of Technology, in New York, at the University of Rhode Island, in Kingston, at the Textile Conservation Centre at Hampton Court Palace (yes, England), for example. These can provide the training, but your entree into conservation outside of the textile/costume conservation community may be less enthusiastic.

Another route that often occurs to potential textile conservators is to take a masters in textiles (usually textile chemistry or engineering), as these are offered at many state universities, and many programs have established or tried to establish a place for themselves in conservation training. I have colleagues who have done this but, again, there are caveats. First it is essential to find some way to participate in the museum and conservation communities while still a student--through internships, attending meetings or symposia, etc. In the past, graduates with an MS (or, occasionally, PhD) in textiles who have not established these contacts before they appear in the conservation job market have not been well received.

The second caveat is that you should be strong enough to withstand the pressure that will come when, as graduation nears, your classmates are choosing among jobs in the textile industry with starting salaries above $50,000, and you are hoping for a 1-year internships paying $18,000 or $20,000. Money is a real problem in textile conservation. I have always assumed that is because true or not, there is a perception that any gentlewoman can do the work of a textile and costume conservator, and because per square inch textiles have minimal value when compared to any painting (for example) of the same period. Although relative salaries are much better than they were a decade ago, until you are established, you may have to choose between eating and paying rent.

Sarah Lowengard
Textile conservator
P.O. Box 6611
New York, NY 10128
212 860-2386

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