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Editorial comment - Conservation Journal 58

Sandra Smith
Head of Conservation

vanda_staff_sandra_smith.jpg

Sandra Smith

Spanning the east wing of the Museum and covering an area of 4000m2 on three levels, the 10 new Medieval & Renaissance Galleries, which opened in December 2009, are the culmination of over 45 conservator-years of work. The galleries include the first new-build public space at the Museum in over 100 years; it will improve circulation and create space to display large objects, such as the Oak Staircase from Brittany and Sir Paul Pindar's house (Schueller).

Co-ordinating and monitoring the work of 11 conservation studios - with some staff also assuring quality of the work of other external specialist studios - has been complex and challenging (Hubbard; Campbell). As Lead Conservator, Charlotte Hubbard combined admirable negotiation, team-working and communication skills with natural leadership to calmly guide the Department's M&R team and advise the Project Team on collection care issues. Throughout what, at times, has been an arduous work programme, practice, standards and approaches have been reviewed and refined to optimise the use of the resources available, prioritise work, develop new skills (Richmond) and safeguard staff health and welfare (Wagner and James). The preparation of objects dating from 300 - 1600, has prompted considerable discussion and ethical debate, raising such questions as 'How should the value of the medieval original be weighed against the value of a later restoration with its accumulated history?' (Costaras and Turnbull).

Conservation has transformed many of the pieces (Jordan), and in-depth examination and technical study (Marsh; Borges; Viegas and Seavers) has underlined the significance of object-based research in expanding our understanding of the V&A's collections (Motture).

Conservation staff's contribution to the Medieval and Renaissance: Past, Present and Future1  blog, initially intended to herald the forthcoming galleries, has expanded, providing insights into how objects were made, used, worn, and repaired. This additional dimension complements the work of the curators and educators, and has been incorporated into the interpretative framework for the new galleries 'in ways that were never envisaged when the project began' (Frost).

The value of collaboration with the V&A's Technical Services Section as well as external conservation companies has been inestimable. By creating teams with complementary skills, new solutions have been found for the construction and mounting of the colossal architectural pieces. The unobtrusiveness of complex structural supports (Rose) allow even the most fragile pieces to appear to 'hang in space' effortlessly, above the visitor (Kidd and Nation).

The National Museums Directors' Conference Guiding Principles to reduce museums' carbon footprint2  very much reflect the approach that the V&A has taken to the environment within the Medieval & Rennaisance Galleries. Passive methods of air exchange, using the ventilation systems within the structure of the building, together with natural and sustainable environmental controls, have been used, negating the need for air conditioning (Bingham and Walker). Intelligent and pragmatic assessment of the objects has pinpointed sensitive collections which require tailored environmental control. This is achieved through conditioned showcases (Pretzel).

On a scale unlike anything attempted by the V&A since the British Galleries opened in 2001, over two thousand objects have been conserved and re-displayed. Assessment and treatment began over five years ago, and, with a determination to maintain all the other 'public programme' events during this project, the dedicated and highly-skilled core staff complement has been supplemented with equally outstanding contract staff, interns, students and volunteers (see Acknowledgement and staff photo). Together, they have delivered work for numerous overlapping projects and deadlines. In 2009 alone, in addition to delivering the Medieval and Renaissance project, the Conservation Department has also completed work for; five other major galleries: Ceramics Phase 1; Theatre and Performance Gallery; The Robert H N Ho Family Foundation Gallery for Buddhist Sculpture in Asia; The Arts of Thailand and The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Galleries;3 eight exhibitions, including Telling Tales, Hats: An Anthology by Stephen Jones, Baroque 1620 - 1800, and Maharaja: The Splendour of India's Royal Courts; 29 displays; 10 international touring exhibitions to sixteen venues; 11 UK touring exhibitions to twenty-four venues and over 100 loans. The achievement of this impressive programme is due to the unrelenting commitment, professionalism and enthusiasm of everyone involved. We are also indebted to the numerous colleagues in other museums and universities who have shared their expertise and provided access to their facilities to assist us with these projects (Burgio et al).

Confirmation that the RCA/V&A Conservation Postgraduate Programme has now closed to new students is poignant for the Department. In 1989, the Royal College of Art and the V&A, in association with Imperial College London, launched their unique partnership for the delivery of specialist, work-based learning in conservation, providing training, education, and research at MA level. The Programme set high standards for itself and its students, and during the past twenty years has seen 61 MAs, 15 MPhils, and eight PhDs through to graduation. All rose to that challenge, excelling in their understanding of highly specialist areas of conservation practice, some offered for the first time in the UK at Masters level, such as Photographic Materials, Historic Wallpapers, Upholstery, Musical Instruments, Stained Glass and Conservation Mounting of Textiles. The consistently high quality of the student work has been recognised in the national Conservation Awards, where the Programme has produced four winners and 6 short-listed students for the Student Conservator of the Year Award. The Programme itself received The Queen's Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education in 2000.

Both students and staff have been responsible for excellent and pertinent research (Button; Hartog).4 Conservation Principles, Dilemmas and Uncomfortable Truths (Richmond and Bracker), and a forthcoming book on the history of twentieth-century household paints by Harriet Standeven, due to be published 2010, will become standard reference books for the future.

It is a tribute to everyone involved with the programme - the supervisors, examiners, visiting lecturers, but most notably the Programme staff (Alan Cummings, Jonathan Ashley-Smith, Helen Jones, William Lindsay, Alison Richmond and Harriet Standeven) - that the RCA/V&A Conservation programme will long be recognised as an excellent model for conservation education. It leaves behind an outstanding legacy of professional conservators and scientists who will continue to take formative roles, throughout the world, shaping the future of the profession.

References

1. http://www.vam.ac.uk/vastatic/microsites/1265_frost/ (accessed October 2009)
2. http://www.nationalmuseums.org.uk/what-we-do/contributing-sector/environmental-conditions/ (accessed November 2009)
3. Development of the Gold Silver & Mosaics Galleries
(accessed November 2009)
4. http://www.rca.ac.uk/Default.aspx?ContentID=504106&GroupID= 159711&CategoryID=36692&Contentwithinthissection&More=1
(accessed November 2009)

Benefactors acknowedgements
The V&A Conservation Department would like to thank the following for their generous support during the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries project:

The Mercers' Company - Coptic tunic (adult)
The Drapers' Company - Tristan and Isolde quilt
The American Friends of the V&A through the generosity of the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation - Venetian lantern
The Henry Moore Foundation - Objects in the Tuscan Sculptors display
The Founders Guild
- Gloucester Candlestick
The 1851 Royal Commision - Gloucester Candlestick

Autumn 2009 Issue 58 special edition