The science group: the way forward

Graham Martin
Head of Science Group, Conservation Department

This special issue of the 'Conservation Journal' gives the reader a snapshot of each of the new Conservation Department Groups. In this article I intend to show the way forward for the Science Group. Before we can look forward a brief glance behind us, to review the current situation, is appropriate.

Table 1: Staff data

Table 1: Staff data (click image for larger version)

A summary of the staffing situation of the Science Group is shown in Table 1. I have included permanent and temporary contract staff with an indication of the years of scientific experience of the members.

These staff come to the Museum with considerable knowledge and experience and gain much on-the-job knowledge necessary to undertake the tasks which are set the Group.

Currently, accommodation consists of the Microscopy Laboratory (situated at the top of the Conservation block at the North end of the South Kensington site), the Geological Laboratory (situated on the fifth floor of the Earth Sciences Building of the Natural History Museum) and office accommodation shared with Sculpture Conservation Section (in the East wing of the RCA block). There is a planned occupation of the New Centre of Research and Conservation in June 1995 when, after vacation of the three present sites, for the first time the Group will be within one laboratory complex.

Reorganisation of the Conservation Department has, on the surface, had little impact on the way the Group operates. On the least significant end, the Science Section has become the Science Group. However, the establishment of the Heads of Group has provided a co-ordinating tier of management within the Department that will include full representation of the Science Group. On the negative side, this has demanded the loss of approximately 30% of the practical bench time that the Head of the Science Group achieved before reorganisation. Compensation is by way of the provision of an Assistant Scientific Officer post that is still to be filled.

How do a botanist, a physicist/materials scientist and chemists come to work in the same Group and how can they get on so well together? The breadth of scientific disciplines is no accident. A wide spectrum of problems are set to the Group that frequently require a solution to be found from an interdisciplinary team. The Group forms the core of any such team. Other disciplines are brought into the team as and when required. These other members may be conservators from within the Department or colleagues from outside the Museum in other institutions who have developed particular skills and knowledge.

Scientific research continues to take the Department and Museum forward. It provides job satisfaction and personal development for the individual(s) involved. The areas of study are most frequently identified by conservators within the Department or from other colleagues within the Collections Department or Research Department. Since 1990, this work has led to 29 publications by members of the Group.

We will maintain our high input into the conservation profession. The past year has seen members of the Group giving presentations at two major conferences and publishing a number of papers. In addition we have taken on the task of becoming the European Co-ordinator for the newly formed Infra-Red Users Group (IRUG). This high level of commitment to the broader profession will continue.

Training is placed as a high priority by the Department and within the Group. Increasingly the Science Group is under pressure to satisfy the needs of both the permanent members of staff and the students and interns who have expectations of the Group. Frequently these expectations are different from those of the Science Group. Typically, students require a short turn round time in their task with good presentation of results. This is to achieve the need for course submissions. Such tasks cause continuous priority reassessments frequently resulting in dissatisfied client groups -usually the permanent staff members who can afford to wait. Within the Group there is a commitment to provide an RCAN&A MA studentship starting September 1994 for three years and in December 1994 Dr Inaba will join the Group for approximately nine months.

The future brings consolidation of the restructuring and better liaison with the Conservation Department client group. An increase in the training of others will help to pass on the knowledge we all retain. We must be careful not to neglect our own development. One possible mechanism for personal development could be through inter-institutional research of which several possibilities are currently being investigated. Bringing all Science Group staff under one 'laboratory roof' will provide great benefits for both us and our clients. There will be a far greater degree of cross-fertilisation of ideas from within the Group that is difficult if not impossible to achieve if there is physical day-to-day separation.

Maintenance of the balance between many conflicting demands must remain at the forefront of our minds. The anticipated static resources over the next few years will require careful management. How do we balance the long term needs of the collections against the short term requirements of art historical research? Also, the continuing debate that exists between preventive and interventive conservation requires balance. It is my opinion that preventive conservation is the only way forward for the V&A - if only because of the huge resource commitment required to service the collections. In turn, preventive conservation requires a sound and thorough understanding of degradative processes and their thermodynamics. Such research is resource intensive and has a wide applicability for most cultural collections. For these reasons inter-institution studies that open the opportunity for external funding are a favoured way forward.