We have launched a new website and are reviewing this page. Find out more

Editorial Comment - Conservation Journal 1

Jonathan Ashley-Smith
Head of Conservation Department

This is the first issue of The V&A Conservation Journal, the successor to a line of publications directed primarily at those with an interest in conservation within the V&A, but reaching a small, wide-spread audience outside the Museum.

The style and purpose of the Journal are different from those of its predecessors. The origin of the Journal is probably a suggestion made at the first ever meeting of the whole Conservation Department in July 1978. The main topic of that meeting was communication. The problem was that the Department consisted of nine specialist sections working in fifteen separate locations with no central meeting point. It was apparent that the conservators would benefit from exchange of information and ideas, and a greater sense of departmental identity. Two conservators, Ksynia Marko and Mary Goodwin proposed the idea of, and later volunteered to edit, the Conservation Newsletter, which consisted of several sheets of typed and photocopied paper telling of current work, recent purchases of equipment and future visits to . other workshops. The circulation was limited to the Conservation Department.

Over the next few years, with changes of editors, the size and standard of production improved and more or less relevant art work began to appear. Articles became longer and occasionally more informative. The Newsletter acquired a resident cartoonist.

Over this period the distribution had increased. Conservators who had left the Department demanded copies so that they could keep in touch. Curators began to read it. The brave statement which appeared in one issue "only conservators can properly assess the condition of an object" was vigorously debated at a meeting of senior curators chaired by the Director. Copies were sent to conservation departments in other museums. The Newsletter's high point was being accepted into the ICCROM library in Rome and thence abstracted into AATA.

But with international fame came the beginnings of decline. People were reluctant to contribute short spontaneous notes which were intended for a local audience if these words were going to be quoted around the world.

Similarly, the cartoons and cynically witty articles, vehicles for the egos of a select number of conservators, discouraged the more serious contributors. Eventually the Director suggested that while the Newsletter had helped raise awareness of conservation, the Department had achieved a status and image of good management that was being held back by the style and standard of its publication.

While the Newsletter was declining, other means of communication were beginning to appear. By 1985 although the Department had increased to eleven sections in seventeen separate locations, it now had regular meetings of section heads, frequent departmental meetings and a potential focal point. "The Conservation Library", somewhere to read a book, to have a cup of coffee with a member of another section or to attend a seminar given by a colleague.

However, there was still a need for local news in brief and calenders of forthcoming events. This was satisfied by the Conservation Bulletin. Through a series of changes of editor and with a certain inevitability the size of the Bulletin increased, articles were longer and artwork began to reappear. Once again distribution started to increase.

The Bulletin was praised at a meeting of the Board of Trustees as an excellent means of communication and gained a mention in a consultant's report on communication in the Museum. Despite those internal accolades, readership outside the Museum was warned to disregard the contents. The cover carried the disclaimer that this was the "In-house magazine of the Conservation Department". And despite praise from outside the Department, not all conservators were happy with tjle state of the Bulletin.

Earlier this year twenty five members of the Conservation staff stayed in a secluded country house for three days to discuss the mission, status and structure of the Conservation Department. A common theme from the various discussion groups was that the Department should improve its channels of communication to its curatorial clients, to the Museum's senior management and to interested professionals outside the Museum. The one way of doing this that was mentioned by every group was - Improve the Bulletin! The discussions that followed in the next months led to this edition of the Conservation Journal.

Another driving force for change has been the development of the post-graduate conservation course run jointly by the Royal College of Art and the V&A. In the summer of 1989, before the first intake of students, the Course Leader Alan Cummings, and I attended the course on "Training for Conservation Excellence" at the Getty Conservation Institute and were both impressed by the use of Apple Macintosh computers to prepare various types of course work. What was available on the Mac was far more flexible and visually exciting than anything available within the IBM environment of the Museum. Through the effort of the RCA and the generosity of Apple,the students and staff now have access to advanced Mac technology on the V&A site. Through connections with the RCA the Department has access to graphic design expertise and equipment.

The effect of the joint course on the Department at the V&A is that nearly 25% of the hands-on studio and laboratory workers will be mobile. They will be people coming from one conservation or educational institution, staying at the V&A for two or three years and then hopefully going on to other conservation establishments.

The flow of highly motivated and potentially expert conservators through the Department generates a new need to create a vehicle of communication with other conservation organisations. The quality of the medium must reflect the quality of expertise and organisation within the Department. The Department has some-thing to sell. Post-graduate training is the major service the Department offers which is worth advertising widely. The more widely the course is known, the higher the quality of entrants will be and the greater the chance of attracting additional funding. The products of the course need to go out into an environment where the quality of their training is fully appreciated and where they as individuals may well be known.

The Journal is a vehicle in which aspects of a student's research and practical work can be published in a timely fashion, without jeopardising the possibility of fuller publication in one of the standard conservation journals at a much later date.

Communications within the Department have greatly improved since 1978. Channels of communications within the Museum have been improving since the restructuring of 1989-90, with more open meetings and the introduction of V&A News. So, in spreading information about the Conservation Department it is the audience outside the Museum that needs greater emphasis. The need for local news in brief and calendars of forthcoming events will hopefully be satisfied by the Conservation Diary, a stark and simple newsletter (a single sheet of paper beautifully crafted using Mac software circulated weekly). This leaves what you are about to read, the V&A Conservation Journal, a publication which is intended to give a series of quarterly snapshots of the projects, personalities, problems and policies of conservation at the V&A. Not only the group of permanent staff called "the Conservation Department" but all those who interact with the Department; students, interns, contractors and all users who are affected by those problems and policies.

One of the current problems is shortage of funds and one of the current policies is to improve performance by concentrating on internal issues relating to the partially quantified and definitely huge backlog of necessary active preservation work acknowledged by the National Audit Office in its report of 1987. So one might question a more expensive and extensive means of communication at this time. By collaboration between the RCA and V&A the costs of the publication have been kept to the minimum compatibility with the desired quality. We have, within a very few issues, to establish a group of readers some of whom will be willing to share some of the costs of production in exchange for information that they really value.