Conservation encompasses two fundamentals: to make the Victoria and Albert Museum's collections last as long as possible and to assist our understanding and enjoyment of them.
All objects and materials change with time. This may be sudden, as in the breaking of a glass vase, or it may be gradual such as in the fading of tapestries. Some change, which occurs before the objects become part of the Museum's collections, may be deliberate, such as the cutting down of a costume for another wearer, or may be unintentional, for example, the darkening of picture varnish. However, age can confer desirable qualities such as patina on metals and ivory, or may add significance to certain groups of artefact, for example, evidence of historical use. Conservators, with curators, historians and other specialists, work together to understand and identify the significance of changes.
At work on the conservation of a Ballets Russes backcloth, possibly the backcloth design for the finalé of the 1926 revival of Michel Fokine`s ballet 'The Firebird'.
Use of x-ray
The X-ray is an essential piece of equipment used in conservation. X-ray examination of objects allows increased understanding of their construction and may identify previous repairs.
The Victoria and Albert Museum has two X-ray systems. A 140kv tube is used for the radiography of low-density objects such as paintings on canvas and wooden panels. A more powerful 220kv set is able to penetrate sculptures and metalwork.
Both systems are incorporated in enclosures that comply with the Ionising Radiation Regulations and are monitored for safety on a regular basis.
Paper conservation incorporates Indian paper and paintings conservation, as well as portrait miniatures, posters and preservation mounting - to name just a few facets of this conservation discipline.
Correct packaging, mounting and handling procedures reduce risk of damage during movement and display and conservators frequently act as couriers when V&A objects are loaned to other institutions. These aspects of conservation work are known as 'preventive' conservation. They include activities such as controlling the Museum environment (e.g. temperature and light) and preventing pests (insects) entering the Museum. This type of conservation helps to slow down rates of deterioration.
Other treatments come into the category of 'interventive' conservation. They include cleaning and reintegration, to strengthen fragile objects, reveal original surface decoration or technology, and restore shape. Interventive treatment makes the object more stable, but also more attractive and comprehensible to the viewer. It is usually undertaken on items that are to go on public display. Before embarking on any interventive treatment, the conservator carefully examines the object and records evidence of use, manufacture, materials, techniques or design.
Conservators and conservation scientists try to understand how change occurs and how it can be slowed down or its effects reversed. Conservation treatment involves change for the object and conservators have to consider the long term implications of their actions. The departmental Ethics Checklist helps to inform the decison making process.
Protecting collections from harm while they are on display in the V&A or travelling around the world on loan, and even while they are kept and studied in stores, requires conservators and scientists to consider not only the objects themselves, but also their environment. This includes the air that surrounds them, the light that falls on them and the materials near them. The people who use the collections cannot be ignored either, as their activities, and even just their presence, affects the objects. This part of the work of the department is usually referred to as preventive conservation.
All collections are at risk from insects and pests and may harbour risks for other parts of the collection. At particular risk are organic materials such as textiles, costumes, furniture, ephemera and ethnographic collections. The Museum's Insect Pest Managementprogramme is explained further here.