October 1994 Issue 13
The training & research group: SIP code
The day-to-day pressures on conservation staff at the V&A arise primarily from commitments to loans, exhibitions and gallery projects. Such projects involve conservators and scientists in the examination and treatment of objects and in the monitoring and specification of environments for their display, storage and transport. Such work is what conservation is fundamentally about and few staff would dispute that to do it well is their central purpose. However, the Conservation Department and its staff have responsibilities beyond those to the Museum's programme. Every generation of conservators must have the opportunity to question what they do and investigate new approaches. Each new generation needs the opportunity to learn from its predecessors. Conservation research and training are vital and a department in a museum as important as the V&A has a special responsibility to provide an environment in which these activities can flourish.
The Department could organise its training and research activities on a strictly in-house basis, catering for the needs and aspirations of staff only. Such an insular approach would not fit, however, with the aim to contribute to the development of the profession as a whole. Nor would it allow the Department to benefit from external input. There are real advantages in offering training and research opportunities to people from outside the Department. They bring fresh ideas, a questioning attitude and experience from other fields. They challenge staff to demonstrate skills, communicate knowledge and justify attitudes. They open doors for collaborations and provide access to the resources of other institutions. The benefits can also be more concrete. Some will demand more than they return but many will be on balance productive over their stay in the Department. Some are highly productive from the moment they arrive.
The policy of the Department on training and research is, therefore, outward-looking. There is a strong commitment to the provision of training and research opportunities for people who are not formally employed in the Department. These include not only the postgraduate students on the RCA/V&A Conservation Course, but also interns who have recently graduated from other courses and stay in the Department for up to a year, and students on relatively short, work-experience placements. The Department is also keen to take in conservators and scientists from other institutions and members of staff from other departments in the Museum. Occasionally there are places for school students or non-conservation undergraduates. The expectations of such people are widely varied. Some seek nothing more than the chance to look over a conservator’s shoulder for a day or two. Others expect constant access to objects, materials and equipment, daily supervision by senior conservation staff and academic support for up to 3 years full-time.
As the Department settles into its new and/or refurbished premises over the next two years, this commitment to students, interns and placements (henceforth referred to collectively as SIPs) will become even more apparent than at present. Designed into the new facilities are spaces for up to 30 people who are not permanent members of staff. Some will be temporary, contracted staff but most will be SIPs engaged in training and research. The demands on the Department, and in particular on the staff involved in supervision, are considerable. The important thing is to ensure that this aspect of the Department's work is well organised. Also, the benefits to the Department, the Museum and the profession must be clearly and effectively communicated.
The first step is to establish a policy towards SIPs which is well defined, understood and (as far as possible) agreed. There are plenty of questions to resolve: What exactly is the difference between a studentship, an internship and a placement? Which should have priority? Careful planning and co-ordination of the intake of such people is essential but how far ahead can we realistically plan? Should we institute standard application procedures across the Department or leave it to individual Sections to do their own thing? Can we provide a clear idea of what a SIP can expect of the Department in general and of their supervisors in particular? What can a supervisor expect in return? Can there be consistency between one Section and another?
It was the concern that such questions should be addressed that led, as part of the restructuring, to the existence of a Training and Research Group alongside the Science, Organics, Inorganics, Paper and Book, and Management Services Groups. Despite the name, the Group does not have under its wing all the training and research that goes on in the Department. These are activities in which permanent staff are also engaged and the Science Group in particular would be justifiably irritated if the perception was otherwise. None the less, the focus of the Department's research and training activities is likely to be the RCA/V&A Course together with internships and placements, so the title is more indicative of purpose than 'Students/Interns', the expression previously used to describe us on the chart at the back of this 'Journal'.
The Group is also quite different in character to the others. By October 1994, the Departmental staff chart should indicate that it includes two members of staff, 15 or 16 postgraduate students and several interns/placements. This is a substantial number and implies the same solidity as, say, the Organics Group. For most of their time, however, SIPs are based in studios or laboratories and their names could with equal validity be placed under the Group or Section to which they are attached. Some are involved in collaborations with other institutions and primarily based off-site. While the Training and Research Group appears to have a distinct existence, it is actually quite nebulous - dispersed across the entire Department and beyond.
Returning to the questions presented above, the final version of a document with the unwieldy title 'Policy and Procedures for Studentships, Internships and Placements in the Conservation Department of the V&A' has been produced and circulated. The proposals it contained have been accepted as Departmental policy although there is inevitably some disagreement on certain points. The procedures outlined should be implemented in the very near future. This should make for better forward planning and streamline the process from the point of enquiry to the point of arrival at the V&A, but there is still much to resolve about what SIP and supervisor can expect of each other thereafter. Experience with the RCA/V&A Course shows that some students feel unsure about their status and rights and unhappy about the lack of consistency from one studio to another. Staff are perplexed about how much time they are supposed to allocate to supervision and concerned that they lack formal training on how to teach. These same concerns apply for interns and placements. Discussion and guidance are clearly overdue. From forthcoming meetings we hope to evolve guidelines for both supervisors and SIPs on what they should get and what they should be prepared to give in the studio.
Outside the studio, the RCA/V&A Conservation Course can make its facilities, seminars and events available to interns and placements as well as to its own students and junior staff. One proposal of the policy document is that internships should be linked to the academic year so that interns can take best advantage of the academic programme during their stay in the Department. This also makes for efficiency, for example in the provision of induction procedures for students and interns at the same time.
The first concern of the Training and Research Group is and will continue to be the RCA/V&A Conservation Course. The main reason for the involvement of the Course Leader in Departmental management at the level of the Heads of Groups is to try to ensure that the relationship between the Course and the Department is successful. However, there are so many areas of common concern for students on the Course and for others who join the Department on a temporary basis that it makes sense to consider these interests together. The Training and Research Group provides an umbrella, if a rather nebulous one, under which this can be done.
Training and research group