The Conservation Department is responsible for the preservation, conservation, investigation and display of the Victoria and Albert Museum's collections. Combining an expert knowledge of material science, outstanding practical expertise and underpinned by scientific analysis and research, staff are able to interpret deteriorated surfaces, evaluate the provenance, authenticity and restoration history of an object. Using this knowledge we can help the Museum find new and innovative ways to display the collections, establish safe transit of objects when touring exhibitions nationally and internationally whilst still ensuring that they are safeguarded for future generations.
We share our expertise with colleagues around the world and have also benefited from many collaborations with external institutes. The Department provides training and development within conservation and conservation science through internships, work placements and by hosting the first work-based conservation NVQ in the country. Along with producing the annual V&A Conservation Journal which highlights the work of the Department, many of our team have, and continue to publish internationally.
Sandra Smith is the Head of Conservation
Conservation management and administration
The Administration Section within Conservation is responsible for managing and supporting the activities of conservation staff. In particular, it provides administrative support to the Department's managers; maintains and develops the Department's information systems, archive and library; manages and reports on the Department's finances; and liaises both externally and within the Museum on behalf of the Department. We also supervise the procurement and distribution of essential supplies; ensure all specialist equipment is maintained and serviced; advise on Health & Safety requirements, support the Department's internship programme and provide administrative support to the Conservation NVQ programmes. Roles within this section include the conservation finance administrator, the conservation interns’ administrator, Condition Reporting Administrator, Conservation Journal Production Editor, Conservation Web Content Management.
Fiona Campbell is Head of the Conservation Management & Administration Section
Furniture, textiles and fashion conservation
Textiles and Fashion Conservation deals with objects, materials and techniques associated with furniture, textiles and dress. Within these areas objects may be made from or incorporate a wide range of both organic and inorganic materials. The studios collaborate in areas such as the conservation of upholstered furniture and conservation within historic interiors.
Conservators in this section work mainly on objects from the Furniture, Textiles and Fashion Collections and also on pieces from the Theatre Museum, the Asian collection and the Museum of Childhood at Bethnal Green.
Textile conservators specialise in all types of textiles which include costume, costume accessories, tapestries, carpets, ecclesiastical vestments, embroidered and printed textiles, archaeological textiles and associated organic materials such as straw, hair, fur, leather, feathers and plastics. Costume mounting for short and long term display and to enhance interpretation is also a specialism within this section.
Furniture conservators have specialisms within their broad discipline which include modern furniture, ecclesiastical objects, architectural woodwork and models, musical instruments, objects from South Asia, veneered, painted and other decorative surfaces, gilding and oriental lacquer.
Furniture, Textiles & Fashion is involved with key preventive strategies within the Museum, including integrated pest management and providing state of the art mounting support and soft packing of dress to enable it to travel for multi-venue loans and exhibitions.
Marion Kite is Head of the Furniture, Textiles & Fashion Conservation Section.
Paper, book and paintings conservation
The Paper, Book & Paintings Conservation section also includes Preservation Mounting and a paper conservator from the Royal Institute of British Architects. The section conserves a wide range of object types including paintings, books, watercolours, prints, drawings, portrait miniatures, Indian miniatures, wallpaper and Chinese scrolls. The section works on FuturePlan projects, exhibitions, displays and loans as well as conserving objects from the study collections. The section also advises on storage, the environment, the condition of new acquisitions and acts as couriers for travelling exhibitions and loans.
Drawing on the specialisms within the section, we have been able to offer practical conservation courses and workshops for conservators from other institutions and those working privately. Topics include the conservation of Japanese prints, European portrait miniatures, Japanese lining techniques, consolidation of damaged paint layers and display mounting for books. We also participate in events in the V&A organised by the Learning & Interpretation department such as gallery talks and demonstrations of examination techniques and talks on artists’ materials and techniques. The section often has interns and placements from conservation training courses and other museums around the world.
Alan Derbyshire is Head of the Paper, Book and Paintings Conservation Section.
Sculpture, metalwork, ceramics and glass conservation
The Sculpture, Metals, Ceramics and Glass Conservation Section is responsible for the care and conservation of a wide variety of objects from the V&A’s collections made from materials that can be loosely described as inorganic. There are four specialist studios .Conservators in the Sculpture Studio work on sculptures varying from very small objects to architectural structures; the range of materials covered includes stone, plaster, terracotta, wood, ivory, amber, and some polychrome surfaces. The team in the Metals Studio works with objects made of base and precious metals, gems and jewellery are also conserved in the studio. The Ceramics Studio conserves ceramics, vessel glass, reverse painted glass, enamels on metal and objects made of wax. Finally, the fourth studio is dedicated to the conservation of stained glass.
The objects are mostly from the Museum's Sculpture, Metals, Ceramics and Glass Collections, but also include examples from the Asian Department, the Theatre and Performance Collections as well as the Museum of Childhood and range in scale from tiny pieces of exquisite delicate jewellery to massive stone monuments.
Conservation work is generally focussed on preparing objects for new galleries and exhibitions, or making sure that objects are sufficiently stable to travel on loan to exhibitions at national and international venues. Typically, conservators are involved with examining and assessing objects in order to determine the most appropriate level of treatment required. Analysis by the Science Section will help to inform appropriate decisions. At their most basic, treatments may involve the simple cleaning of surfaces, while at the other extreme; treatments can involve the painstaking dismantling of an object with complex old repairs into numerous pieces and the subsequent rebuilding using specialist materials, tools, and techniques. Beyond the Conservation Department, conservators maintain an advisory role to colleagues and members of the public on aspects of preservation and display.
Victoria Oakley is Head of the Sculpture, Metals, Ceramics & Glass Conservation Section.
The science section
The Science team aims to contribute to the knowledge and understanding of museum objects and their environment. It works in collaboration with the Conservation department, other museum staff and external fellow professionals and concentrates on collection-centred work, balancing education, research and consultancy. The skills within our multi-disciplinary team include: chemistry, physics, materials science, conservation science, polymer science and microscopy. Ongoing museum initiatives that fall within our sphere include: environmental monitoring and advice; lighting and solar control policies and implementation; dust monitoring; technical examination of artefact constituents and response to environments; insect pest management; display cases; pigment and other artists’ materials analysis. In-house techniques available to the V&A scientists include X-ray fluorescence (XRF), optical microscopy, Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR), Raman microscopy, ultra violet and visible spectroscopy.
The need to care for and technically understand objects in the V&A collection is fundamental to the Museum’s activities. Collections-centred work is focussed on the gallery projects and has included: the analysis of many of the objects and collections; a study of modern materials and their condition in the Museum's collections; a test framework for choosing the most suitable adhesives for particular conservation projects and establishing the light-fastness of textiles whilst on display.
In order to understand our own collection we may need to seek and research comparative material in other collections; other researchers may also need access to items in our care to complete their own studies that, in turn, contribute to our own knowledge. Dissemination of the results is an imperative part of the overall process. International and national collaborative projects are also undertaken on a regular basis.
Alan Derbyshire is Head of the Science section.
There are also dedicated research programmes within the Museum. Financial resources for the work may come from a variety of sources: in-house; from the UK research councils or from international funding agencies. Some research projects result in commercially viable products such as the light dosimetres pictured here.
This part EC funded project has twelve partners around Europe and the USA. It started on 1 October 2008. The objective is to develop a European wide accepted strategy that improves preservation and maintenance of plastics objects in museum collections. Based on scientific studies and experiences gathered from partners, it is proposed to evaluate and establish recommended practices and risk associated for exhibiting, cleaning, protecting, and storing these artefacts. During the twentieth century artists have used synthetic polymers to create important pieces that are recognized nowadays as masterpieces. Unfortunately, some artefacts are degrading faster than had been expected and their preservation constitutes a challenge. There is a lack of knowledge and agreement about the way we can exhibit, clean and store them in order to lower their deterioration rate. The focus of this project will be on art museum collections created with synthetic polymers (typically cellulose nitrate, cellulose acetate and poly(vinyl chloride) with a special interest in polyurethane objects and coatings) and will focus on three dimensional objects as these frequently exhibit physical degradation.
OCEAN stands for Object Centred Environmental Analysis Network and is the V&A's environmental monitoring system. It is a radio network of data loggers spanning the Museum and its outstations, sending continually updated data (temperature, relative humidity, light, UV, flood) back to a central computer server.
The Museum is now updating this technology and will be using state-of-the-art IT techniques to manage the data and allow a far greater level of access to this same data. Unsurprisingly this project is called OCEAN II.