January 1997 Issue 22
To stimulate and maintain public interest, and to encourage new visitors, the Museum organises a succession of spectacular events at regular intervals. Typical events are the launch of a home-grown exhibition, such as last summer's tribute to William Morris, or the opening of an imported exhibition such as 'American Photography'. Newly refurbished galleries are re-opened with great ceremony and publicity. Two such triumphs were the Raphael Gallery and the Silver Gallery, which opened in quick succession at the end of last year.
The regular spacing of publicly declared deadlines is not reflected in a uniform succession of projects within the Conservation Department. Inevitably a great deal of our work is driven by deadlines associated with exhibitions, galleries and loans, which are the overt examples of the Museum's mission to improve public access. However, the order of the much publicised endpoints does not reflect the order in which the projects were started. Plans for the refurbishment of the Raphael Gallery began ten years ago and the start of the conservation work on Raphael's immense cartoons was reported in this Journal in 1992. By contrast the work on the Silver Gallery was much more compressed. The name of the gallery seems to imply that only the Metals Section would be involved, but in fact six different sections contributed. Many of these could not start the new project until they had completed the reinstatement of the Wellington Museum in the middle of 1995.
The conservation work does not stop when the gallery is opened: for light sensitive objects there must be continually changing displays and for those that are sensitive to pollutants, in the museum environment, there will be a continuing programme of cleaning (unless suitable protective measures can be taken). It is hoped that the research described in this journal will lead to successful preventive methods. The hundreds of pieces of silver in the new gallery are protected by high specification showcases which should slow down the rate of tarnish. By measuring levels of pollutants and testing absorbents we may eventually be able to extricate ourselves from the relentless cycle of silver-cleaning. The project on dust measurement is the starting point for an environmental specification which is based on the effect dust has on the appearance of the objects, that is, the degree to which it interferes with access. Access to the collections is gained in many more ways than large exhibitions and permanent displays. There is a steady progress of small temporary displays and a cycle of improvements to parts of older galleries. Conservators help design new methods of mounting objects which will enhance interpretation but which will also minimise risks of damage on display. Examples of these are the adjustable mounts for the exhibition of books and the acrylic mounts used in a new display of nappies at the National Museum of Childhood at Bethnal Green.
Some parts of the collections will never be on public display, but there is still a demand for access, and work must be done to make them accessible. Typical is the work on the Heal's Archive, one of the most requested items at the Archive of Art and Design. The article describes the collaboration of archivist and conservator in a project not driven by deadline but by the need to get it done.