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Jonathan Ashley-Smith
Head of Conservation Department

The Conservation Department consistently faces two recurrent questions: 'which job should we do next? and how long can we afford to take over it?' There is a constant worry that we do not arrive at appropriate answers.

The first question, which is often couched as 'what is our highest priority?' relates to the Department's strategic planning process. In theory, the Museum's Conservation Department has only one client, the Museum. This should make prioritisation a simple task. In reality, however, the Museum is divided into discrete collections, broadly distinguished by material type or by culture. Each collection bids for the use of Conservation time through a single individual who is meant to represent all the desires of all the staff associated with that collection. By this definition the Department has about thirteen different clients with, theoretically, equal bidding powers.

The clients bid for a range of services: preventive conservation, preparation for loan, preparation for display or technical examination. The degree to which the Conservation Department has been pro-active in suggesting which work is necessary, varies tremendously from one client to another, and one Conservation Section to another. The jobs that get priority tend to be those for which the Museum has established an importance: by agreeing to a loan or planning a new gallery. As the number of these increases, so other types of work achieve lower priority.

In recent years there has been a number of multi-client, multi-media projects requiring centralised co-ordination. The Conservation Department, with its division into a large number of specialist sections does not always react easily as a single, co-ordinated entity.

It was in the light of these perceived difficulties with strategic planning, communication and co-ordination that the Staff Inspectors who visited last summer, proposed a new structure for the Department. The proposal is for a smaller number of senior managers each in charge of a number of the present specialist divisions. The debate about the value of such a change was slow to start but is now becoming more vigorous.

The decision about the amount of Conservation resources that any one job should command is necessarily reached through discussion which usually involves a degree of compromise. The client implicitly suggests an amount of time by requesting that a certain number of objects are treated before a certain deadline. The conservator is able to say how much work is necessary to stabilise each object, to clean it or restore it. This concern about the standard of work that is demanded, or can be provided, is a recurrent theme in contributions to this issue, where the ethics of intervention and the amount of time spent on preparing objects for loan are discussed.

The degree of work that is undertaken on any one object is often the subject of an interchange between an individual curator and an individual conservator, neither of whom has been directly concerned with determining the deadlines of the overall project. That this curator-conservator communication does take place is demonstrated by two articles in this Journal. That it results in a consistent approach to determining standards of work is less certain.