July 1993 Issue 08
Two years ago a conservation student wrote from France asking what effect I thought '1993' would have on conservation in a British national museum. I replied that in Britain we thought of it as '1992' but that there would be little change. By that time there were no barriers to employing European Community conservators on a freelance basis or as permanent staff, so we had already achieved free movement of labour. Conservation is highly labour-intensive and particularly operator-dependent, so this could be expected to be the biggest change brought about by the proposed removal of all impediments to trade in Europe.
Two years later, when the 92/93 milestone had been passed, the reality of Europe became apparent. Within the last few months I have seen the best and the worst of the European dream.
Something that increases resources so that you can carry out your strategic aims must be good. Something that increases the information network, so that you become more knowledgeable and better able to do your job, must be good. The European-funded project for the Assessment and Monitoring of the Environment of Cultural Property (AMECP) has provided equipment and staff to assist in our long-term aim of improving the environment in which the collections are displayed. The official launch of AMECP held in Wiirzburg, Germany, allowed me to meet a select group of scientists and conservators, and increased my knowledge and understanding of current environmental research. Indirectly the trip also provided the opportunity to get to know two members of the Museum's administrative team who had had to wrestle with the European paper mountain. This should lead to improved internal communications and make our next successful application for European funds much smoother.
Something that drains resources and restricts freedom of action cannot be quite as good. The European directives relating to issues of health and safety have about them the air of a 'nanny' state determined that everyone will work in uniform, comfortable, regulated and documented ways because any risk is too great to take. As Chairman of the Museum's Safety & Security Committee I can hardly come out against health and safety at work, but since conservation is fundamentally and statistically a safe occupation, I believe the spirit of the directives should be interpreted in that light. After my third training session on the EC directives I had a vision of conservators seated in perfectly adjustable chairs in front of perfectly illuminated display screen equipment, unable to enter any treatment records because there was no money for materials and no treatment method was deemed safe.
The European obsession with regulations and uniformity was apparent at a meeting I attended in Genoa, Italy, which - funded by the European Parliament - was mostly about the development of a European conservation profession but mixed with a dash of Italian politics. It was held a day after the Danes had voted 'yes' and there was a great deal of relief that 'Europe' still existed, although the Italians always spoke of 'Europe' as something that started north of the border. This latter was a reference to the apparently uneven distribution of funds throughout the community. The French have to some extent succeeded in protecting the professional title of conservator/restorer by law and there were calls for more rules to define and patent the status of conservator professionals. There are also proposals to work toward uniform standards of conservation training (with no reference to NVQs). It is sad that a group of people has to resort to law as a means to perfect the self-evident value of their skills and knowledge, but it may be a necessary stage where, it is still believed, as one Italian professor put it, 'The conservator is only the maintenance man and so is obviously subordinate to the art historian'.