The term “conservator” is used in several ways. In the first sense, a conservator is someone who looks after items of special value, such as rare books or pieces in a museum or art gallery. In addition, a conservator can be a court-appointed guardian of a person or an estate, and his or her status can be permanent or temporary, depending on the circumstances. In both cases, the term implies protection, and a conservator has certain responsibilities as well as rights.
In the sense of protecting and preserving items of value, a conservator typically undergoes special training which qualifies him or her in the field. Most conservators study archiving, learning how to handle and preserve the items they work with, and many study anthropology, because they are interested in the cultural value of the artifacts they protect. A conservator may work in the back of house, preserving and mounting items for display as well as studying and cataloging them, or in the front of house, assisting visitors, answering questions, and working as an educator.
In the sense of a court appointed guardian, a conservator has authority to make some decisions for someone who is judged incompetent. For example, a mentally disabled or psychologically disturbed person might require the assistance of a conservator. The conservator must make good choices for his or her charge, ensuring that the conservatee's finances are well cared, that health care is available, and that the conservatee is generally happy and well-kept.
Being a conservator can be very stressful and time-consuming. Most regions have laws which protect conservatees to ensure that they are not exploited, but this can also cause problems for a conservator, who may be forced to constantly petition the court to make decisions like moving a conservatee out of the area, or into a residential care facility. Some people use the terms “guardian” and “conservator” interchangeably, underscoring the fact that the conservator should act with the conservatee's best interests at heart.
A conservator can also be appointed to oversee an estate, in which case he or she is expected to catalog all of the items in the estate and make sound decisions about their disposal. These decisions should be based on the known wishes of the estate's owner. For example, a book collection destined for a particular library must be delivered there, regardless as to the personal wishes of the conservator.
Conservators who are legally appointed or given powers through documents written by conservatees are accountable to a court, and often to a committee as well. They must be able to justify their decisions and actions, explaining why and how something was done. If a conservator is unable to fulfill this requirement, he or she may be relieved of duty and a more suitable person will be selected for the task.