A visit to Liverpool

Jennifer Swan
Administration Intern, Conservation Research

The V&A's Conservation staff were invited to attend an open day at the new Conservation Centre of the National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside (NMGM). Approximately 20 representatives from the V&A, visited the centre in Liverpool on 28 September 1996. The Conservation Centre brings together, for the first time, all the conservation staff at NMGM. What makes the Conservation Centre unique is its function as an educational centre for the general public. I am an American university student training in medicine and as part of my course, I spent a semester in London as an intern. The visit to Liverpool took place during my time in the Research and Training Division of the Conservation Department.

The open day allowed us to see both the public areas and the conservation studios. The studios are made accessible to the public through weekly tours. The main public facilities are a large permanent exhibition entitled 'Caught in Time' and a two-way video link. There are also periodic live demonstrations showing packing techniques and object handling.

A preview of the video link was given in a multipurpose room on a large viewing screen. This 20 minute video link was designed as an informal means to show the work of a conservator to a large audience. The arrangement was quite simple: the interviewer was with the audience while the conservator remained in the studio with an object and two cameras. No technicians were required once the equipment was set up. The interviewer facilitated a discussion between the audience and the conservator. Questions asked included: 'What is the object?', 'Why is the object being conserved?', and 'How will you conserve it?'. The cameras can be controlled by both the conservator and the interviewer. A variety of camera angles demonstrated the cleaning and repair techniques used.

Next I explored 'Caught in Time'. Hand-held audio devices played recorded information which explained the interactive conservation displays. One of my favourite displays showed how X-rays were used to examine a mummified crocodile without damaging the bandages. This technique had allowed conservators to discover more about the painting on the bandages and that there was a baby crocodile inside! Another interesting display was of a shattered ceramic jug, which explained how plaster casts were made of the missing pieces. Replacement pieces were then thrown with such precision that even the finger patterns on the sections matched. Throughout the exhibition the preventive aspect of conservation was stressed.

I spent the afternoon wandering through the studios. All of the conservators were willing to talk about the objects they were treating. Many of the studios were quite large, particularly those for painting, textiles and organics, paper and sculpture. I also visited their library which was a large room providing abundant space for the growth of their collection.

The obvious down side to this level of public access is the consumption of a conservator's time on education rather than object treatment. This is a difficult challenge to overcome, but NMGM appears to have struck a desirable balance. Visiting the studios, most conservators seemed content with their studio space and excited by the challenges associated with working in a public oriented facility.

I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the Conservation Centre. Conservation is relatively unfamiliar to the public and NMGM has incorporated fascinating methods to provide a new outlook on the art world.