October 1994 Issue 13
The inorganics group: a wider perspective
The Sections within the Conservation Department that make up the Inorganics Group are Sculpture, Metalwork, Ceramics & Glass and Stained Glass. The Inorganics Group seemed the logical title for a group that consists of ceramics, vessel glass, sculpture, stained glass and metals but within those 'inorganic' headings there are several materials covered that are organic. These include wooden polychrome sculpture, ivory, wax, amber and plastics. The restructuring of the Conservation Department in September 1993 brought together classes of materials that had been historically linked within the Museum.
Until about 25 years ago, sculpture, ceramics and stained glass were all covered within one Section but then the Sections began to evolve into their specialist areas, as the old art workshops were unable to satisfy the requirements in the growth of knowledge about particular materials and object types. New types and fields have become necessary as late 19th and 20th century materials have started to deteriorate. The result of this development was an increase in the subsections within Conservation in a way which was not properly planned, creating a department that was not seen to be working as a linked and cohesive Conservation Department.
The division into specialised areas was essential as it enabled the development of expertise. This evolution has continued and in some Sections the number of specialist areas has increased. Ceramics and Glass, for example, now covers enamels, waxes and plastics. To some, the bringing together of these materials again under the new heading of Inorganics has been perceived as a retrograde step. There exists for some, an unfortunately negative attitude of why bother? In very simplistic terms it could be said that while the previous structure was working for individual Sections it had grown too disparate to function efficiently within the context of the Museum.
In fact the original reasons for the separation are still valid and will continue to be so: we need to continue to research and develop techniques within our own specialisations, and it is vital that students are given the opportunity to study in a specialist section under a supervisor with specific knowledge. It is not the intention of the restructuring to undermine the expertise of the old Sections.
I would like to outline here some of the aims and benefits of the regrouping, and the effect on the Sections involved and on the Museum as a whole. It may be helpful to begin with a brief profile of the people within the Group. There are presently 19 people including students and the breakdown is as follows.
The Sculpture Section consists of Richard Cook, Head of Section, and two permanent conservators, Alexandra Kosinova and Charlotte Hubbard. At present there are two RCA/V&A Conservation Course students, Lynne Humphries and Marie-Thérèse Weech.
Vicky Oakley is Head of Section. There is another permanent post that is split into two half-time posts, occupied by Fi Jordan and Juanita Navarro. Working also in the Section on a three year contract is Brenda Keneghan, a plastics conservator. There is one RCA/V&A Conservation Course student, Rachel Oliver.
Diana Heath is Head of Section. Two full time posts have recently been advertised and there are a further two permanent conservators, Leesa Vere-Stevens and Joanna Whalley within the Section. Vivienne Farmer is the RCA/V&A Conservation Course student.
Stained glass section
My position as Head of Group also means that I retain my position as Head of the Stained Glass Section. Samantha Whitney fills the other permanent post. A new RCA/ V&A Conservation Course student, Ariana Makau, started in October.
Head of group's role
The Head of Group's position provides a link from the Sections of the Group to the Head of the Department and to the rest of the Museum. The HoGs represent Conservation on many of the committees which previously were covered by the Head of Department. This means that greater communication will exist between the Sections and the wider issues in the Museum. It is hoped that Sections will view this as increasing their representation and not simply as removing it.
Under the previous system it should be acknowledged that the dissemination of Departmental information was not consistent within the various Sections. The amount and type of information being passed to all the different grades and students varied. The establishment of the Group structure should enable the HoG to establish close links with all the members in a way which was not practical for the Head of Department, and to create a common practice for communication.
The HoG is in a position to provide a wider perspective on the demands being placed upon his or her Group and to liaise with the Collections accordingly. It is not intended to replace the working relationships already established between individuals in Conservation and Collections: these are very important and should be maintained above all. There will be, however, elements of management which could be adopted by the HoG allowing the Sections to devote even more time to conservation work.
For many years all the people working within the Museum have become used to the old structure and it is inevitable that some time will elapse before we all feel comfortable with the new system. On a practical level the new Group immediately clarifies one of the previous areas of confusion. Certain objects have never clearly been the responsibility of one Section or another. For example, large scale ceramics will now be under the Inorganics Group rather than with Ceramics or Sculpture. The Inorganics Group has had two key members away on extended periods of leave since the restructuring in September 1993. However, from August 1994 we will have been at full complement and able to build more rapidly on the foundations established since my return in April 1994.
We have serious geographical problems at present which inhibits the Group identity. As Sections, we are dispersed throughout the entire Museum, from the top floor within the Museum Galleries to the edge of the building site of the RCA development, which will become for most their new accommodation. This is a very real obstacle because it is difficult to meet unless this is planned in advance. The physical relationship of the places in which people work has a direct impact on both professional and social intercourse. Unplanned and impulsive contact is a useful means of exchanging ideas and information. To some extent this will be improved once the New Centre of Research and Conservation is completed and we will all work physically much closer together.
Of particular interest is the development training within the Group. At present there is a great deal of structure and support in the RCA/V&A Conservation Course for students but there is no consistency in the training of junior staff within the Department. The lack of specific training courses means that some Sections recruit staff without relevant specialist training. This puts a considerable responsibility on the Department and ultimately upon the Sections to provide adequate training. Some Sections are able to provide a thorough grounding and fairly structured approach to training. Others suffer from heavy workloads and demands which create problems in offering a trainee an appropriate variety of objects to work on. It is intended that the Group should establish programmes or syllabuses for the training of junior staff. These will not have to follow specific time scales but provide a check upon the breadth of experience being gained by the staff. The sharing of experience and even staff resources should allow for junior members to receive a broader training more rapidly.
As a Group we can help and encourage all the members to participate in the courses and training that are available generally within the Museum through the Training Section. The HoG can provide a wider perspective on the Group's needs and encourage individuals to attend courses.
As a Group it will be easier to plan for shared resources both in terms of equipment and staff. The HoG controls the budget and therefore can co-ordinate the purchase of equipment. Perhaps we can all have access to a greater range of resources if in some instances it would be possible to share them. With staff too it will be possible to co-ordinate the needs of the different Sections. The demands made on the Sections' time fluctuate according to the exhibitions and gallery schedules. There may be occasions when Sections can call upon each other for practical help but it is only through Group management that this will develop.
Within the Group there will be increased possibilities for developing research and the exchange of ideas. This will include assessing the way that we work on similar materials. For example, Ceramics and Metalwork both work on enamels. Sculpture and Ceramics sometimes work together on large scale ceramics. There are obvious links too with some of the conservation techniques that are carried out. For example, the processes for the repair of stained glass and vessel glass are similar but there has never been formal discussion on our relative approaches or comparison of successes and failures. There are some conservation materials that we all use: epoxy resins and retouching materials are common to all Sections in the Group. At the moment we all approach the Science Group on a Section basis to have materials tested. This puts extra strain on an under-resourced Group. As a Group we can co-ordinate and prioritise the demands we make on others.
Fig.4. Diana Heath dismantling a metal mount on a 17th century pilgram's flask. (click image for larger version)
It is also vital to continue developing external links to increase the amount and quality of research that we carry out. We are already working with Imperial College, and in particular the project with the Ceramics Section looking at glass decay has generated international interest which is certain to sustain further study in this area. Two other short term projects have also been established with Imperial College. One is to do an analysis of the sgraffito panels on the facade of the Museum with Richard Cook and the other involves Charlotte Hubbard who is furthering her research on the cleaning of alabaster.
The restructuring has created a new tier of management which should be viewed as a positive development. It is important to remember the Group is only part of a larger Department whose role is linked to the development of the Museum. The creation of the new Group should help the Department to achieve its aims by enabling greater communication, better and more planned use of resources, a wider and less inward-looking approach and it is hoped a more rewarding working environment.