Are you passionate about safeguarding historical buildings, cultural sites and artifacts? Historic preservationists ensure the long-term care of artwork, documents, objects and buildings. Also referred to as museum technicians or conservators, historic preservationist roles differ from other history-related careers. This is due to the wide range of available subfields. If you have a background in fine arts, you may restore damaged paintings, sculptures and textiles. Other preservationists serve in administrative roles or develop public awareness campaigns to educate visitors about protected items. The diversity of the field attracts people with a range of interests and specializations.
“Preservationists help us understand who we are, that without a past we have no grounding in terms of the decisions that we make now and in the future,” says Dr. Peter Van Cleave, clinical assistant professor of history and director of online programs at the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies at Arizona State University. “There’s a sense of why we need history, why we need to preserve documents, to understand how things were, why they changed and how they can be changed for the better.”
What skills does a historic preservationist need?
Careers in historic preservation and restoration are often collaborative, as projects usually depend on input from historians, archivists, stakeholders and logistics experts. The ability to communicate with internal and external parties is essential. Good communication skills allow you to educate the public and secure stable funding.
Preservationists usually find jobs at cultural heritage institutions and nonprofit organizations. These employers need people who know how to interact with historically valuable objects. What may be a surprise is that many in this line of work don’t directly handle these items on a daily basis. Instead, historic preservationists often create and maintain detailed records. They also oversee the logistics of acquiring and storing new artifacts. Additionally, they contract insurance policies and create risk management procedures. Most administration-based historic preservation jobs require close attention to detail. Preservationists also need significant subject matter expertise and an aptitude for organizational thinking. Above-average reading and writing proficiencies are also desirable.
This occupation requires technical experience. A historic preservation degree can help you gain this experience and be competitive in the job market. A graduate degree in history can prepare you with research techniques and practical skills. Most graduate programs offer classes in historical methods, global history and cultural studies. They also offer a wide selection of electives that touch on particular time periods. Electives can help you identify career options in the field of history. They may even teach you how to get a job in historic preservation!
Historic preservationists perform a variety of tasks beyond safeguarding documents, artifacts and buildings. To succeed, you need subject expertise and the ability to communicate the value of conservation. It’s also important to consider personal characteristics and soft skills that may help you excel, such as:
- Dependability: Museums and nonprofit organizations place a lot of trust in historic preservationists. These professionals need to act with purpose and integrity if issues arise. Technical staff are accountable for the quality of their restoration work. Administrative professionals need to make the right decisions when directing conservation projects.
- Logistics and analytical thinking: Working in this field requires individuals to analyze information. They also identify effective solutions for preserving at-risk artwork, documents and historic sites. Coordinating the exhibit, storing and transporting fragile objects entails logistics and risk management.
- Cooperation: Historic preservationists working with professionals with different perspectives and abilities. The ability to work well with others can create an environment where everyone has a shared goal.
- Attention to detail: Subfields in this line of work use observation skills. These help identify risks to historic items and locate opportunities for process improvement. Detail-oriented thinking is also essential.