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Editorial Comment - Conservation Journal 2

Jonathan Ashley-Smith
Head of Conservation Department

The Victoria and Albert Museum

The Victoria and Albert Museum (click image for larger version)

The OAL, which funds a large proportion of our activities, has asked the National Museums and Galleries to provide a series of measures of performance which demonstrate how efficiently they use tax-payers' money to fulfill their mission to preserve and display the collection and disseminate information. Within the V&A, the Conservation Department has specifically been asked to devise its own measures of performance so that there can be some meaningful quantitative comparison of 'productivity' from one year to the next.

The OAL has asked the National Museums to produce plans to increase the amount of 'market testing and contracting out' of activities with the museums. The 'conservation of artefacts' was seen as one area well suited to contracting out.

The two initiatives pose the same question. Is the Conservation Department, as it is currently resourced, organised and located, the most efficient way of providing the various services which the rest of the Museum and the audience outside the Museum demand?

This problem was addressed by the Department at a 'retreat' last February and a follow-up 'development day' in the summer. Within the Department the ideas generated at these large group sessions have been pursued in more detail by the PlGlets (the small Performance Indicator Group). During 1992 we hope to have professional help in assessing our 'productivity'.

One common idea in all these discussions has been the notion that many people who criticise us for high cost or low productivity are not aware of the complete range of services that are provided, of who our clients are, or of the complexity of the problems that surveys, examinations, treatments and documentation can pose.

The PlGlets have discussed methods of quantitatively illustrating the activities into which resources are put and ways of demonstrating the range of timescales of different jobs from the one-hour fix to the six-month project. This type of information will eventually appear regularly in our annual report.

This journal provides another method of rectifying some of these misunderstandings. Yet a single edition can give a distorted view. In this issue, there is a heavy emphasis on textiles which does not indicate that work has stopped in other disciplines. Moreover there are a number of reports from conservators who were very obviously not at their benches being 'productive'. The costs and benefits of time spent at conferences or on study tours will continue to be a subject of debate, but the PlGlets have begun to address this by trying to define changes that have occurred to methods of treatment following attendance at conferences. The Textiles Section is currently placing a special emphasis on the continuing process of assessing past treatments and can admirably demonstrate improvements to techniques following productive absences from the bench.