Profile of a ROM Conservator

Posted: March 14, 2012 - 13:18 , by royal
Research, Staff, Conservation | Comments () | Comment

Working tirelessly behind the scenes, ROM Conservators help protect our collections from damage and restore objects to their previous splendor. Ok. Maybe we’re generalizing a bit, so we went right to the source and asked Cathy Stewart, Manager of Conservation, a few questions to help uncover what Conservators really do at the ROM.

Susan closely looks at a small terracotta figurine stands on a table.

Cathy examines artifacts shipped for exhibition at the ROM as they are unpacked for damage. This terracotta horse was displayed in The Warrior Emperor and China’s Terracotta Army exhibition (June 26, 2010 to January 2, 2011)

Can you describe your profession in 100 words or less?
Ah! Tough one! Conservators are involved in every aspect of the physical life of collection objects. Using specialized equipment, tools and materials, they analyze how and when things were made and what materials where used. They get clues about the way the object was treated and used by examining its condition, and distinguishing damage from evidence of use and wear, and new damage from something that occurred a long time ago.

With all the information gathered in this way, Conservators can recommend the best conditions for each object, the best temperature, relative humidity, light and more, to ensure that an object will survive into the future.

Finally, when necessary, Conservators will treat objects. This may, but does not necessarily mean ‘restoring’ them. Treatment may be simply to stabilize, it might be to strengthen, and it might be to beautify, or it might do all three.

Using a q-tip, a conservator carefully cleans a metal vessel.

Cleaning an artifact for display in the Art of Collecting exhibit (October 2011 - September 3, 2012).

What do you think the public should know about your profession (but doesn’t)?
I guess the thing that people really don’t know is that the ‘restoration’ part of our work, although often the most impressive to see, is only a small fraction of what we do. Our work in helping in the understanding of the objects, how they can be expected to age, and how to best care for them as they age, is most of what we do. It is possible to drastically increase the ‘life’ of an object by the choices that are made in the way it is handled, stored, displayed, and so on.

In your opinion, what is the most interesting aspect of your job?
So much of what Conservators do is interesting, and it is hard to choose one thing. Discovering the secrets of an object is one of the most exciting aspects of Conservation. Sometimes this is done with complicated scientific equipment, like our x-ray system. Sometimes it is the result of something as simple (and complicated) as cleaning off centuries of dirt.


If you think this sounds like an interesting profession, come test your skills this March Break at the ROM. A special activity table is set up at the entry to the Shreyas and Mina Ajmera Gallery of Africa, the Americas and Asia-Pacific on Level 3 of the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal.