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Professional development in a project culture

Alison Richmond
Deputy Head, RCA/V&A Conservation Postgraduate Programme

A large part of the work of conservators and scientists in the V&A is now generated by major projects within FuturePlan. In 2008, 46% of the Conservation Department's work fell under the 'Major Project' heading and of this 39% came under 'Medieval & Renaissance Galleries Project'. There is a strong assumption in the V&A that professional development of staff is desirable for the Museum as well as for the career prospects of individuals, and a personal development plan is a part of Performance Management. Continual Professional Development (CPD) is also an essential requirement of the Institute of Conservation's (Icon) accreditation scheme (PACR). Sandra Smith, Head of Conservation, has reflected that, with increased demands on conservators resulting in proportionately less time on each object and a decline in the proportion of detailed investigative and interventive work, 'high level conservation skills… are currently under-utilised and under threat'.1 Given that this is a reality not just for the V&A but also for many other museums, it seemed worthwhile to find out what kind of professional development is facilitated by the V&A's current major project.

Interviews with senior staff gave an indication of the range and spread of CPD and the personnel involved across the Department. Professional development tended to fall into two main categories of skills and knowledge: specialist and generic. The first includes those required for object-based work, e.g. documentary research, technical analysis, interpretation of evidence and interventive treatment. Generic refers to skills common to all professions, such as project, resource and people management, communication, team-working, decision-making and risk assessment. Many of these skills cross over the two types; for example, decision-making is as much part of practical conservation as it is of project management. This overall picture fits neatly with the profile of the professional conservator in the twenty-first century drawn by Pye and Sully, who noted that in developing a range of professional skills - both specialist and generic - conservation is following the normal evolution of professions.2

Many interviewees noted that the best way of ensuring professional development of specialist skills and knowledge is to plan it into the project at the outset. When the conditions of the initial in-situ examination and assessment of an object are favourable (such as adequate light, magnification and complete access), and the conservator has enough relevant knowledge about its condition, materials and techniques, then staff development can be planned into the estimate of resources needed for conservation (Rutherston).

Collaborations lead to staff development because the process involves the exchange of specialist information in a new situation. Projects in the V&A offer a wealth of opportunities for collaboration, within and across departments, between museums, and with external individuals and organisations. Much of this happens on a pro bono basis. Expertise from outside the Museum was sought by metalwork conservators to help identify the components of the Alton Towers Triptych (4757-1858), thus enabling an increasingly rare opportunity to examine and discuss objects with fellow professionals. Working alongside conservators, Museum Technician Matthew Rose developed skills through innovation - designing and constructing a mount that would support a stone figure without putting any weight on vulnerable parts (Rose).

When in-house resources are not available, external funding has been sourced to enable work to go forward. Generously supported by The Mercers' Company, the Egyptian Tunic (291-1891) dating from 642-800, identified at the time of assessment as requiring substantial investigation and treatment, was allocated as a development opportunity to a member of staff who had not previously worked on an archaeological artefact. The project evolved into an externally funded, collaborative research initiative with the University of Bradford, which has proved to be a very successful project for all concerned and has built up new networks for the future.3

Externally funded internships and fellowships have been created to develop individuals from outside, who in return contribute to the research and conservation of the collections. In 2006/7, funding was generously provided by the Samuel H Kress Foundation for a Conservation Fellowship to provide for a paintings conservator to research and treat a number of Renaissance objects, in particular painted cassoni. Eowyn Kerr reported that 'the year has provided a deeply enriching experience, allowing for the development of a specialist expertise in the conservation of cassoni panels, whilst creating an opportunity to work in a cross-platform environment with the V&A staff and collections.'4

It is notoriously difficult to give accurate assessments of time when objects are examined in galleries or storage areas. It is sometimes not until the object arrives in the conservation studio that its condition and information potential become apparent. Research is often an intrinsic part of the process of examining and treating an object and can uncover previously hidden information that may lead to unforeseen research questions.

Master Bertram's Apocalypse Triptych (5940-1859) is a case study in reassessing the importance of an object - and the time required to conserve it - as more information becomes available during the conservation process. The 'Master Bertram' proved to have an ethical minefield hidden beneath its obscuring varnish requiring conservators to optimise their skills associated with reflective practice - in decision-making, liaison, networking and consultation, and to nurture these by consulting experts from within and outside of the Museum. In terms of adding value to the object, the research and treatment have resulted in a re-evaluation of the status of the altarpiece (Costaras and Turnbull).

The Medieval & Renaissance Galleries project involved the de-installation and re-installation of life-sized, freestanding and wall-mounted sculptures and monuments of a scale and quantity that had not been tackled in the Museum since the 1960s. Contract conservators with relevant expertise, employed to supplement the core team, were able to transfer their skills to permanent staff. This enhancement of knowledge allowed a greater understanding of these architectural pieces, access to skills associated with masonry and buildings, as well as conservation practice (Hubbard).

Everyone agreed that through involvement with the project all staff were learning - albeit in different ways - many generic skills common to all professions and crucial to the smooth running of projects, such as good communication, negotiating, resource management and decision-making. Senior staff learned how to deliver projects more efficiently and became fluent in writing tendering specifications and managing external contractors. The role of the lead conservator has both developed the post-holder's self-confidence and honed essential skills. However, my findings concur with those of Pye and Sully that conservators are generally apprehensive about what they see as an erosion of their specialist skills in favour of generic professional ones.5

There are many examples of professional development within the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries project; some were planned, others happened on an ad hoc basis. In the case of the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries, fabulous and complex objects offer unparalleled opportunities for conservators to develop their knowledge and skills through research into the materials and techniques of manufacture, the condition of the object and its history, conservation materials and techniques previously used, and the development of new treatments. Most projects have a lead-in time of several years and increasingly staff are being strategically 'skilled-up' in anticipation of the changes in emphasis. For example, in the foreseeable future, the emphasis will be on the display of the Furniture, Textiles and Fashion Collections; staff are being prepared accordingly. Nevertheless, a question remains about how strategic we are able to be within the project framework. The development of conservation staff depends on the availability of objects of complexity and time to research them. Conservation staff, through this and other large projects, have developed their generic skills, enabling conservation advice to be integrated throughout all stages of the project development. Yet, if the specialised skills and knowledge that help to unlock information from fragile objects, which have been repeatedly modified through restoration, are to be developed in a project-based culture, we need to raise awareness of the value that this information can add to the understanding and enjoyment of our cultural heritage.


I would like to thank Sandra Smith, Charlotte Hubbard, Victoria Oakley, Alan Derbyshire, Marion Kite, Graham Martin, Ann Bancroft, Sophia Wills, Nicola Costaras, Rachel Turnbull and Elizabeth-Anne Haldane for their contributions to this article.


1. Smith, Sandra. 'Access at any cost? Strategies to maintain conservation standards and expertise at the V&A', Conservation and Access: Contributions to the London Congress 15-19 September, IIC (2008) p.205

2. Pye, E. and Sully, D. 'Evolving challenges, developing skills', The Conservator (2007) vol.30, pp.19-38

3. Haldane, Elizabeth-Anne. 'Waking the dead: scientific analysis of an Egyptian tunic', V&A Conservation Journal (Spring 2009) No.57, pp.22-23

4. Kerr, Eowyn. 'Renaissance painted cassoni', V&A Conservation Journal (Spring 2008) No.56, pp.24-26

5. Pye and Sully, p.29

Autumn 2009 Issue 58 special edition