July 1994 Issue 12
The South Kensington forum
The attentive reader may have noticed that, both in this Journal and in any literature about the RCA/V&A Conservation Course, the term 'South Kensington campus' is given quotation marks. This is because such a campus does not formally exist. There is no University of South Kensington and no collective South Kensington museum of art, craft, design, science, technology and life.
The informal campus does exist and includes, among others, three major museums and three important academic institutions. The former are the Science Museum (SM), the Natural History Museum (NHM) (including the Geology Museum) and the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A). The latter are the Royal College of Music (RCM), the Royal College of Art (RCA) and Imperial College of Science, Technology & Medicine (ICSTM). There are links between these institutions at all levels, from concessions for RCA students at the ICSTM swimming pool to joint proposals to the Millennium Fund for multi-million pound redevelopment of the South Kensington site. These links, however, are probably fewer and more tenuous than an outsider might think. One reason for the limited collaboration and communication is probably the importance of the museums and colleges as centres of excellence and specialism. Staff and students are so intent upon being the best in their own disciplines that there is little time to look outwards. Crossing the road (literally) between art and science is a distraction and South Kensington remains an archipelago of impressive institutions rather than a synthesis of different cultures. Prince Albert's vision falls victim to Prince Consort and Exhibition Roads.
To continue with the road metaphor, there have no doubt been many attempts to encourage a little productive jay-walking. For example, at the Consort Club dinners held each term, you can find an opera singer, a nuclear physicist and a textile designer at the same table and the conversation usually flows as readily as the wine. The South Kensington Forum (SKF) is the latest attempt to establish a network of footpaths across the 'campus'. Its aims are more specific than social interaction and they begin with a simple hypothesis. Among the numerous scientists and technologists on the 'campus' there must be a reasonable number who would find it interesting and rewarding to apply their expertise and skills in the fields of art, craft, design and conservation. Among the many artists, designers, craftspeople, curators and conservators, there must be many with questions and problems that can be usefully addressed by scientists. The SKF therefore aims:
to establish a cross-disciplinary forum which inspires, encourages and reports on collaborations among the institutions of South Kensington in the applications of science and technology in art, craft, design and conservation.
Conservation is an obvious area for such collaboration and it was therefore decided to devote the first SKF 'mini-symposium' to this subject. The meeting was held in the Clore Lecture Theatre of Imperial College on Monday 25 April, from 5.30 to 7.30 pm. About 50 people attended and almost everyone stayed on for a glass of wine and a cross-disciplinary, inter-institutional chat after the presentations. (About 150 leaflets had been sent out to selected staff and students of five of the aforementioned institutions and all were represented at the meeting.) The emphasis on conservation inevitably meant a predominance of museum conservation staff but there were also physicists, mathematicians, chemists, engineers, materials scientists, and holographers. From a numerical and demographic point of view this was not a bad turn-out for a first meeting.
The evening had a particular purpose. This was to illustrate, as bait for the 'campus' scientists, the range of problems faced by 'campus' conservators responsible for the vast, diverse and complex collections held in the 'campus' museums. Four talks followed some opening remarks by Professor Bryan Coles, previously Pro-Rector and now Professor Emeritus of Physics at ICSTM. Three of these were overviews of conservation activity and needs in the 'campus' museums. They were presented by Dr Jonathan Ashley-Smith (V&A), William Lindsay and Lorraine Cornish (NHM), and Hazel Newey (SM). The fourth talk, given by Dr David MacPhail and Jason Ryan of ICSTM, provided an example of how a collaborative research project can be set up involving staff and students of two institutions (V&A/ICSTM). Dr McPhail gave a very clear, concise and realistic account of the ingredients needed to make a collaboration work. He stressed the need for a clear statement of the problem at the outset and the potential for success given the considerable and varied resources available on the 'campus'. He also emphasised that, while useful work could be done at undergraduate and postgraduate student level, the real target must be substantial long-term projects with substantial long-term external funding. Jason Ryan discussed his progress to date in the study of glass deterioration. Jason is currently registered for a PhD at ICSTM with Case Award funding from the Science and Engineering Research Council. He works closely with conservation staff at the V&A and employs very sophisticated surface analytical methods in his studies. His research is a good example of what the SKF would hope to inspire and report.
The talks by senior conservation staff suggested that the immediate concern for conservation in the "campus" museums is general rather than particular. The tendency is to look inwards at organisational structure and departmental relationships rather than outwards towards collaboration on specific problems presented by the collections. This is perhaps less true of the V&A where the Conservation Department is large and long-established. Also, in the fine, decorative and applied arts, conservation is a readily definable activity for which the need is acknowledged. For scientific, industrial and natural history collections, the discipline is still emerging as a mainstream activity distinct from curatorship or collections maintenance.
Overall, the first meeting of the SKF was a reasonable success. It encouraged staff and students from the distinctly separate institutions of the 'campus' to cross the road and talk to each other. It set out - though perhaps less well than we had hoped - the problems (and opportunities) conservation staff face in each of the museums and it illustrated how the scientific community in South Kensington can help to address particular problems.
We intend to arrange a second meeting in the autumn and hope to find speakers who will concentrate on applications of science in art, craft and design rather than on conservation. We aim also to produce a first newsletter to precede the second meeting. This will list members of the SKF and their interests, provide short reports of existing collaborative projects (at all levels including undergraduate) and announce forthcoming meetings.
The organisers of the SKF are Alan Cummings (Deputy Course Director, RCA/ V&A Conservation Course), Professor Bryan Coles (Professor Emeritus, Physics, ICSTM) and Christina Young (Postgraduate Research Student, Mechanical Engineering, ICSTM). Christina is setting up a database of names, projects and so on. She would very much like to hear from anyone on the 'campus' who is interested in the aims of the SKF, and who would like to attend meetings and receive the newsletter.
The South Kensington Forum may, of course, be a product of naive and idealistic thinking. The scientific community in South Kensington may have no significant interest in the activities of its neighbours and the neighbours may see little advantage or potential in being across the road from ICSTM. This is a proposition we would like to prove wrong.