January 1996 Issue 18
After a year of research leave, I have been back at the V&A for four months. Something I observed and thought about during my year away has become more meaningful since my return.
During the second half of my research leave I visited a number of conservation organisations in North America, Scandinavia and Germany. In Washington and Ottawa I was proudly shown around new buildings that were curiously empty of people. In many places managers were discussing re-organisations of staff that were designed to reduce vulnerability to cuts or were a response to actual requests to cut expenditure. If managers were not actively laying off staff they were discussing the fact that their government's attitude to funding conservation and research meant they shortly would be. In Europe and North America central funding agencies seemed happy to put millions into capital schemes but not into running costs or staff. Even in countries that allow lottery funds to be used towards running costs there were fears that these would be diverted away from academic and heritage causes.
Last December half of the Conservation Department at the V&A moved into new studios, laboratories and offices in the Centre for Research and Conservation. I hope soon to be proudly showing visitors round the new block and I hope that it does not look too empty. The scheme will be completed by the end of 1997, by which time we should have space for about 100 staff, students and interns. The staff chart in this Journal shows we currently have about 80 people on site. We wait to see the short and long term effects of the Department of National Heritage's announcement that it is reducing its grant to the Museum.
Part of my research has been about how to measure damage. One approach is to measure the change in value of affected objects or collections. You can estimate this change as a proportion of some initial value which is conveniently set at unity or 100%. Or you can attempt to measure the change absolutely. The simplest way to assess a change in value is to measure a difference in 'willingness to pay'. It is not a simple matter to identify every aspect of a willingness to pay for the increased chance of preservation of national collections. Nor is it easy to assess the willingness to pay for the improved appearance of objects on display. However, it is fairly plain that governments that reduce funds to the guardians of national collections are making assumptions about the electorate's willingness to pay. By reducing funding they are making assumptions about the way the general public value historic and scientific collections.
In environmental cost-benefit analyses it is recognised that people are willing to pay for the continued existence of whales or rain forests even though they have no personal likelihood of ever coming across a single example. By reducing subsidy derived from taxation and by suggesting that the 'user' pay for access to objects and information, governments seem to be denying the electorate the willingness to pay for the continued preservation of collections that they value but do not necessarily wish to use.