October 1994 Issue 13
Cover note: The cover shows the famous miniature by Nicholas Hilliard, entitled 'Young man leaning against a tree among roses'. (Museum number P.163-1910) The choice of this cover illustration pays tribute to Jim Murrell, paintings conservator, who sadly died this year. Jim was internationally recognised as the leading authority in the conservation of European portrait miniatures.
The Mission of the Victoria and Albert Museum is to increase the enjoyment and understanding of art, craft and design through its collections.
To help meet the needs of curator, scholar, conservation professional and the public the Conservation Department aims to:
Ensure that the collections are stable, in optimum visual condition and technically understood.
Achieve the highest standards of conservation practice, training and research.
Set an example of excellence to the profession.
Provide an environment that stimulates the personal and professional development of conservation staff.
This statement of the purpose of the Conservation Department in the Victoria and Albert Museum was proposed in draft at a residential meeting of Conservation staff and representatives of other Museum departments in January of this year. It was confirmed as the Department's formal Mission Statement after consultation throughout the Department and approval by the Museum's senior management group. At the January meeting, and in subsequent meetings of larger and smaller groups, the long-term goals of the Department were determined and many of the steps toward these goals were established.
In addition to the need for any organisation to assess whether it is aware of or ahead of changes in its environment, there are two immediate reasons for this major reappraisal of the Department's sense of mission and vision. Firstly, most of us will be moving into new laboratories and studios in the "Centre of Research and Conservation for the Decorative Arts" and working geographically nearer to one another and to curatorial colleagues. Secondly the Department is in the process of discovering the effects of a restructuring of its senior management.
The first day of September 1993 is the recorded formal date for this restructuring. The process had begun more than a year earlier with ,discussions between senior Museum staff and inspectors from the Cabinet Office review team. The process of change is continuing more than a year later. This issue of the Journal reflects on the changes achieved during this first year and the changes that can be predicted by presenting the attitudes and aspirations of six members of the new senior management team. These are prefaced by a brief history of the achievements of the last twelve months.
The recommendations in the Cabinet Office report were first made public at a Departmental meeting in December 1992. Among a number of comments about improving administrative procedures throughout the Department were three major recommendations. These would have a dramatic effect on the future of Conservation Staff.
There should be a reorganisation of the duties of the Department's administrative staff to ensure co ordination of budgeting and planning.
The existing system of through-grading for conservators should be changed, reducing the potential for promotion for a number of staff.
The nine practical sections should be amalgamated into three new groupings under the management of three new senior posts.
It was thought that these changes would improve the ability of the Department to react to and contribute to the Museum's strategic planning. It would incidentally lighten the load of the Head of Department enabling him to become more involved in technical and scientific matters. The Staff Inspectors also optimistically believed that the changes would result in financial savings for the Museum.
The three new Heads of Group (HoGs) were selected in July 1993 and formally took up their posts on September 1st.
All of the six senior managers are now known as 'HoGs' which gives rise to some amusing imagery. The HoGs and the Head of Department meet weekly to discuss current business and to try to push forward policy and planning issues. A number of broader long-term problems have been progressed by smaller teams of HoGs or by other groups that may or may not involve a HoG. In addition, the HoGs have held a number of 'away days' (not all lasting all day and not all outside the Museum) to try to thrash out important policies. It was at such a meeting that it was finally decided to abolish the long standing practice of allowing freelance practical work on the premises out of Museum hours.
One of the more vigorously ex-pressed aims is for the Department to be more fully integrated with other groups in the Museum. It was instructive to have members of other Departments participate in the discussions. At one level integration can mean just letting other people know what is going on in the Department, at another level it means greater involvement in decision-making to prevent imbalance in the Museum's use of the resources that the Department offers. The HoGs are now members of a number of Museum Committees, project teams and liaison groups, ensuring a greater and more uniform voice for conservation at the planning stage of Museum projects.
One concern is the degree to which the work of the Department is merely reactive to the increasing and occasionally overwhelming demands incurred by the Museum's long-term programme of new galleries, exhibitions, loans and rotation of sensitive objects. Given the needs of other parts of the collections and the demands of other areas of our concern such as training and research, there is a desire to achieve a better balance between driving and being driven. This is being addressed by planning which comes not only from the top down but upwards from junior staff. The two processes meet somewhere about the level of the HoGs, who have the task of managing flows of information not only vertically within the Department but horizontally through links with clients and other service providers within the Museum.
Use of terms such as 'service', 'customer' and 'clien' are not popular. In some minds they suggest different levels of status and are deemed inappropriate for descriptions of dealings between professional equals.
However we are directed by our mission to meet the needs of the curator and to achieve the highest professional standards, both of which suggest a continuing process of improvement to the quality of communication, planning and delivery.
Unfortunately, when experts write or speak about improving quality, they usually refer to transactions in which one person provides a "service" and the receiver is called a 'customer' or a 'client' or even a 'purchaser'. The HoGs have started discussions with the curators to determine what their needs are and also to make clear the maximum resource that can be made available for different projects. I hope we will never reach a situation where our Museum partners have to purchase our services, but there is room for negotiation using units of time as a form of currency. There is also room for negotiation of 'service level agreements'.
Other areas of debate are the nature and purpose of documentation and the role of research. As we fmally near the installation of our networked record system the new senior managers are beginning to use the historic data to help with estimating and planning.
The Museum has a published policy on research, in which conservation and scientific research are seen as specialist off-shoots of the mainstream of the history of art, craft and design. As the influence of our post-graduate course increases and as more space for temporary placements becomes available in the new Centre of Research and Conservation, it is important that the Department has its own statement about directions and procedures for its research effort. The first phase of this has been the acceptance of a policy which describes the obligations and expectations of both Department and visiting student, scientist or conservator. The second phase will result from deliberations between the Heads of the Science and Training and Research Groups who have been charged with producing a complete research policy for the Department. In the meantime the Museum has again demonstrated its commitment to both conservation and research by granting the Head of Department a year's research leave until October 1995.
At the very first meeting of the HoGs I explained that the Department had a strong sense of family and of fun, and that they should strive not to lose that during the inevitable changes ahead. At the same meeting we agreed that the individual groups had different problems and different needs and it would not be sensible to adopt a remorselessly uniform speed of change or style of management. Read on!