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Jonathan Ashley-Smith
Head of Conservation Department

'I cannot believe that writing this or reading it can be a Museum priority.' This is the view of one of the many respondents to our survey, seeking comments on the first four issues of the Journal. The remaining replies were consistent in their praise and helpful in their criticism.

The request for more examples of curatorial contributions has been addressed in this issue, and other suggestions can be incorporated in later numbers. However, the response quoted does highlight a problem that faces the Conservation Department, and which has been the subject of a series of discussions over the summer months. 'How can we organise the Department's workload so that all activities are seen to be Museum priorities and can be seen to be carried out efficiently and cost-effectively?'

That could have been stated as 'How can the Museum clearly organise its long and short-term priorities so that it gets full value from its limited conservation resources?' However, that would wrongly shift the responsibility for poor forward planning and for definitions of priority outside the Department.

Twice a year representatives of the Department's curatorial clients meet the Heads of Sections to discuss conflicts and constraints, and improve methods of forward planning. From meeting to meeting there seems to be little real progress in the latter area. The perennial complaint from clients is that not enough work is getting done. The perennial complaint from the conservators is that they continually have to fit unplanned work into an overcrowded schedule at short notice. In answer to this, one curator remarked that in all his years in the Museum he had never heard a conservator say 'No!' At a recent meeting of senior staff in the Museum a Section Head from another service department, which suffers identical problems of overload and erratic demand, was proud to announce that 'We never say 'no''.

Two months ago, at very short notice, an unplanned activity was slipped into the Department's schedule. This was a review of our staffing and workload by Cabinet Office inspectors which diverted the use of around 100 man-days. At the end of the review, the inspectors indicated that a significant message in their report would be that the Department cannot work efficiently if the Museum's strategic planning does not include a realistic appraisal of resource implications. This view had already been raised when the Strategic Planning Team met at Alfriston in July, and was further discussed at a Departmental meeting.

Here it was pointed out that systems for assessment of resource needs were being incorporated in the planning procedures of the Exhibitions and Buildings programmes. It was also remarked that a substantial number of projects such as surveys, training, research and publication, are generated within the Department rather than imposed from outside. So we are in more control of our time than we sometimes like to claim.

If we are to help the decision-makers make the right decisions at an early stage, we need to improve our estimating and to use our (recorded) experience to make generalisations about the resource demands of future projects. This inevitably means allocating more time to planning, discussion and object assessment before the project is formally started. It also means recognising that not all projects get off the ground.

If we are to say 'yes' with confidence, we need to develop our scheduling skills and procedures. If we are to say 'No' convincingly, we must be able to show that our time is fully and sensibly booked. This latter task is made easier if there is a general appreciation of the wide range of tasks that the Department legitimately undertakes. The Journal provides a cheap and effective way of doing this. Writing and reading it is a high and pleasurable priority.