Art Conservation Versus Restoration: What’s the Difference?

fragmentary colossal head of a youth at met photo by gail worley
Fragmentary Colossal Head of a Youth Photo by Gail

Many who pride themselves on being knowledgeable about art are missing important distinctions about the difference between art conservation and art restoration. While they are both concerned with improving the appearance of artwork, the processes vary greatly. Understanding these differences is important for art owners who are looking to restore or conserve their pieces. Read on to help yourself differentiate between art conservation and art restoration.

marble portrait head of antinoos photo by gail worley
Marble Portrait Head of Antinoos Photo By Gail

What Are the Differences?

Restoration as a practice is focused on returning the art to its original form. Because their work is more concerned with the physical presentation of artwork, restorers care less for the historical significance of damage sustained over the years. 

Conservation has developed from the practice of restoration with a focus on incorporating historic research and scientific analysis into the work. These conservators are concerned with preserving the full history of the artwork, not just the physical manifestation of it. 

interior of museum
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

Certifications Required

The first thing to note when seeking out conservation or restoration is that there are different levels of training required. Owners should choose a professional that has experience and documented credentials to complete any work on a piece of artwork. 

Art conservators are required to undergo far more training than restorers throughout their years preparing for a career. They will need to seek out post-graduate training courses and complete certification before they can safely practice their trade  on a physical piece of art. Many conservators even specialize in certain techniques and mediums like wooden carvings, textiles, or paintings.

Art restorers typically train as an apprentice under a professional art restorer before they are able to take on their own work. They typically are less knowledgeable about how restoration can damage a piece of art. For this reason, it is important to ask about their experience and see a book of their previous work.

tools used in conservation and restoration
Tools Used in Conservation and Restoration (Image Source)

How Their Practices Vary

Conservators and restorers do not work in the same way due to their different priorities when working on a piece of art. This can be best explained with an example about repairing a torn piece of paper or canvas. A restorer may use new techniques to make the artwork stronger and less susceptible to tears in the future, while a conservator will focus on replicating the exact technique that the original artist used. 

One thing that restorers and conservators do have in common is having a preferred or specialized medium. Paper conservation is one of these specialties that can include paintings, old maps, and documents. This is part of the draw for this medium to conservators, who are always interested in preserving history. Canvas is another medium that former artists or art students tend to specialize in, as they are most familiar with it. More mediums include clay and woodwork pieces. 

interior of museum
Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Pexels.com

Pros and Cons of Each

Restoration will be the best option for your artwork if it has sentimental value to you. This process can also extend the life of the artwork, which is a positive to consider if you are planning on handing the piece down from generation to generation. The issue with art restoration is that the passage of time is often erased from its canvas or another medium. Some argue that it is wrong to change the artwork and that it should be allowed to age naturally. 

If someone is concerned with the erasure of the artwork’s age and history, they would be more inclined to align with conservation techniques. The benefit of this is that original techniques are maintained while the piece is restored to the best quality it can be. For instance, an antique book would be maintained in its current state under conservation and returned to its original state under restoration. The negative of this process is that some artists believe a piece should be allowed to decay in its natural state, especially if the artist is not able to provide input.

Any time someone handles art, it must be done so delicately. Conservators and restorers alike are enthusiasts of art themselves, and will always work carefully to produce the best product they can. When choosing to conserve or restore, remind yourself of the different techniques they use and their distinct priorities. Your artwork can stand to benefit from either one of these treatment options.

One thought on “Art Conservation Versus Restoration: What’s the Difference?”

  1. Thanks for explaining that restoration is simply focused on returning the art to its original form. My grandma hid away a few clay and marble statues in our attic, and I want to get them restored to display in our living room. I’ll have to contact art restoration services as soon as possible.

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