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Not quite come of age

Alan Cummings
Course Leader, RCA/V&A Conservation Course

On October 7th, the third academic year of the RCA/V&A Joint Course in Conservation begins. Fifteen students are due to register on the first day of term, fourteen for MA(RCA) and one for PhD. No students will actually cross the stage of the Albert Hall as graduates until next July, and on this basis, too much introspection seems a little premature. A proper assessment must wait until at least October of '93, when twelve students will have graduated and taken up internships or employment. Only when the Course has properly come of age, and graduates are in positions of responsibility outside the Museum, can we reasonably discuss whether the new venture is an improvement on the previous and long-standing arrangements for training conservators at the V&A. Despite these reservations, the first issue of the new Journal seems an appropriate place to comment on what has been achieved so far and to recognise the contribution made by all the staff involved.

Between them, the fifteen students who begin or return to the Course in the new academic year cover nine quite separate areas of specialist conservation training and three areas of research. The specialist disciplines include Textiles, Metals & Jewellery, Sculpture, Stained Glass, Furniture, Ceramics & Glass, Photographic Materials, Historic Wallpapers and Upholstery. The majority of these are areas in which the Department has previously been involved. It is certainly the responsibility of the Course to organise training in 'traditional' decorative arts disciplines and inevitably, most of the options offered to students will echo directly the organisation of the Department into Sections. If applied rigidly, however, this organisation meets neither the needs of the collections, nor of the profession, nor of students. There are clearly potential areas of specialisation which fall between or within disciplines, which encompass more than one discipline as currently defined, or which have not yet received much attention at all.

It would be foolish of the Course to aim to inflict on the Department the responsibility of providing training or research opportunities in areas where there is no professional need, no expertise whatever for supervision, no particular interest and no relevance to the collections. The options we make available to students must originate with members of staff who recognise a need to improve understanding and practice in areas of conservation of special interest to them and who have the enthusiasm to become involved. The responsibility of the Course is to identify, promote and respond to these interests and it is gratifying that we are already becoming a means for the Department to take on new areas of training and research alongside the 'traditional' disciplines. At the same time it is immensely frustrating that in disciplines like Books Conservation, where demand from students, professional need and staff enthusiasm are more than apparent, we can offer no opportunities for want of space.

Historic Wallpapers is an example of a new and worthwhile venture in conservation training, organised in collaboration with The National Trust, and arising from the interests of Pauline Webber, Merryl Huxtable and Mary Goodwin. The Trust has a responsibility for such materials, often of great importance, in properties throughout Britain. The V&A also has substantial collections of wallpapers and large paper objects. The expertise to deal with these materials on the scale necessary is simply unavailable, and the Wallpapers option is a direct response to this state of affairs. Similarly, the decision to make Upholstery Conservation available as a discipline in itself is in recognition of the fact that neither textiles conservators nor furniture conservators are likely to have acquired in their own training the skills to deal expertly with upholstered furniture.

The absence of precedent, the lack of specific job opportunities and the considerable degree of specialisation makes these disciplines rather unknown territory for the students, the Course and the staff involved. They reflect, however, the ambition of all concerned to be innovative and to respond to an apparent need. The same ambitions prompt the involvement in research. One of the MA projects involves an analytical study of early 20th century photographic materials. The other concerns the materials and techniques of portrait miniatures and will parallel the work done elsewhere on easel paintings in recent years. The PhD project, unfunded as yet, involves a study of dimensional response in museum objects using the technique of holographic interferometry. This is to be a collaborative venture involving the Course, the Department and the Holography Department of the RCA. We anticipate additional help from Imperial College and the National Gallery and the project illustrates the ability of the Course to pull together several areas of resource and expertise in a cross-disciplinary project.

While the students share a common goal - a career in conservation - they are very different in background, age, previous training and experience, and in the particular enthusiasms which prompted them to apply for the Course in the first place. There must be few academic courses which can include in their list of current students a microbiologist, a philosophy graduate, an art historian, a fine cabinet maker and a forensic scientist. Some begin their training with little or no experience of conservation, some with several years of formal training and practical experience already behind them. Some have very good university degrees, others are highly skilled but have little in the way of academic qualifications.

With such diversity in the 'entry profile' and with so many different disciplines to contend with, the most important aim of the Course must be flexibility and the ability to tailor training to the needs and abilities of individual students. The first step in this direction is a fairly obvious one - to vary the length of the course to suit individual students. Those with substantial conservation training or experience will be permitted to complete their MA course in two years. Those who begin without previous conservation training, however, will spend three full years on the course to gain the same qualification. The decision as to a two or three year course for any particular student is very much with the Interview Board, not with the applicant.

The detailed organization of the course must similarly reflect the fact that we are dealing with a small number of individual students with individual needs. Course outlines and specialist syllabi are available to guide staff and students over two or three years. There is an impressive list of seminars and courses involving teaching staff from the Museum, the RCA, Imperial College and many other institutes. There have been a series of valuable visits to studios and workshops and two study trips (recently to Amsterdam). The course includes opportunities for students to work outside the department and to undertake original research as part of a practical training. Two students are currently on summer placement - one at the Smithsonian in Washington DC, the other with freelance conservators of metals in London.

There has also been some success in the matter of funding and additional resources. Diana Drummond won an important scholarship (the Darwin) in competition with the best students of the RCA. One of the wallpapers students will be receiving a full bursary from The National Trust throughout the course. Albert Neher has received a major contribution to his fees as an overseas student from another fund. Apple UK have donated a system of computers and a laser printer to the course. The Conservation Unit and the friends of the V&A have made generous contributions for the course events and to individual students.

More important than any single achievement, the overall structure of the course is beginning to work. Thanks to the commitment of staff within the department, the RCA, Imperial College and elsewhere, there is already a solid backbone on which individual students can build the Course  which suits them best. Whatever progress has been made in the first two years, there can be no continued development without the support of the Department at all levels. While some have close links to particular museums or collections, no other conservation training course in the UK exists within a major museum Conservation Department. This relationship between Course and Department offers many advantages to students - overwhelming advantages in terms of staff, resources, collections, variety of experience and so on - but also a number of disadvantages. Of the latter, the most important is that teaching is not the main, let alone the only, responsibility of the staff involved. It may be a matter of official policy that staff offer supervision to students but, to inspire genuine support, the Course must reward all the time and energy it consumes. It must give as much to the Department as it takes.

Hopefully, it is beginning to do precisely this. It can probably offer a richer variety of facilities, expertise and opportunities than was possible for the previous studentship scheme - not only for students but for trainees and staff. This is possible through its ability to involve the RCA, Imperial College and many other institutions and individuals for their expertise in conservation-relevant areas. The Department can also derive much benefit from the presence of students in a wide range of disciplines, bringing different backgrounds and skills, taking on essays and research projects of interest to their supervisors, returning from placements and visits with fresh ideas. The Course offers a formal system of assessment and an internationally recognised post-graduate qualification to students whose status as such is clearly defined.

There is no space to discuss some of the factors which will influence the future development of the Course, but one, at least must be mentioned. The 'numbers game', however inappropriate to a small, specialist venture like ours, is a game everyone in higher education seems obliged to play. How many enquiries are there in a year? How many applications? For which disciplines is there most demand? How many students can be taken? Why so few?

How many bursaries are needed? How many staff deal with how many students? What is the cost per student? How does this compare with other MA courses? How does it compare with other Conservation Courses? Whatever is achieved as regards quality of education, the Course as it stands will never be able to compete on a numerical basis. There is simply a limit to the number of students the Department can absorb and October will probably see it reached. New ideas and the enthusiastic support of staff will be even more important if changes in the status of the RCA threaten the Course in its present form.

There are less mundane considerations than numbers and cost-effectiveness. How should the Course respond to changes in other Courses, in the profession as a whole and in the museum world? As preventive conservation becomes more and more important, would it be valid to provide training which does not aim to include the traditional skills of the conservator/restorer? In America and in archaeological training courses, students are trained as 'objects conservators'. How specialised should responsible training really be? There are many equally provocative questions to be answered. Perhaps the next issue of this Journal will include some opinions.

When appointed to run the new Course, I have to confess an overwhelmingly naive positivism about the whole affair. Surprisingly, these positive feelings have survived almost intact. There is inevitably a hint of cynicism born of grappling with two such very different institutions (not to mention Imperial College) for three years. Nontheless, when I tell potential students what a wonderful opportunity for conservation training and research we can provide on the 'South Kensington campus', I can deliver my lines with genuine sincerity and an absolutely straight face. There is no better place to learn to be a conservator. I hope I have argued successfully that there is another point to be made. No other Conservation Department has the advantage of a Course with such potential in its very midst!