April 1996 Issue 19
One of the Department's stated objectives is to determine a responsible balance between its varied activities, and to allocate resources accordingly. The balance between preventive and interventive conservation has been discussed in a previous editorial. In addition to these basic responsibilities that relate directly to the care of the Museum's collections, the Conservation Department of a major national museum has other obligations and must engage in other activities that involve communication beyond the walls of the museum.
The Museum's role is both to preserve and utilise the collections. Leaving collections unused involves a certain risk, using them increases the risk. One way of determining a responsible balance of resources might be to pay more attention to high-risk areas. Another might be to pay more attention to high use areas, that is, high exposure to the public.
Temporary exhibitions score well on both counts. This is why many conservators find themselves heavily involved in minimising risk at key stages in the planning and execution of temporary displays. This means giving much attention to a small number of objects and thus less attention to the bulk of the collections. This might be considered irresponsible. It can be made to sound criminally negligent if you choose to see it as giving more attention to a small number of someone else's objects and thus less attention to the bulk of our collections. However, if the Museum is to act as a responsible borrower it has an obligation to ensure that objects we request are in a fit state to travel to us and that we can provide a suitable environment for their protection when they arrive.
The next major exhibition at the V&A, celebrating the life and work of William Morris, involves bringing objects from environments that are radically different from that provided by the Museum, and from institutions that do not have automatic access to curatorial or conservation guidance on suitability to travel. The Conservation Department has a responsibility that starts early in the planning and extends physically to the source of the objects as well as their final venue. We shall be quantifying and reviewing the Departmental resources that have been dedicated to this one project and looking for ways to compare the costs with the benefits.
In the light of rapidly diminishing funding from central government we shall also be looking at time and money dedicated to other activities such as research, teaching, and communications. We need to assess the value of our output in these areas. Even when we are convinced that what we do is an essential part of the mission of a national museum, and that we can do it well, we still need to look for cost savings and opportunities for income generation.
This journal is one of the main ways we communicate with the rest of the world, but there are alternative technologies such as the Internet which might be cheaper and more effective. This is why we are asking our readers what the value of the Journal is to them, and whether they value it enough to pay for it in its present form.