July 1997 Issue 24
The director of the V&A who had the foresight to select me as Head of Conservation 20 years ago, has just published his diaries for the years 1967-87 (The Roy Strong Diaries). What was an extremely memorable day for me in November 1977 goes unremarked, but following my appointment, there is a succession of important events that we both seem to remember. Although his diaries deliberately concentrate on the social side of his life, he gives enough information to gain a good picture of the relationship between a Government and a National Museum. Most relevant today are observations about the effect of a change in government. Roy Strong remarks that a Conservative Government would be good for the Country but not for the Arts, yet the V&A suffered terrible cuts under a Labour administration. Indeed looking at the period covered by the diaries, which span two terms of Labour and two terms of Conservative control, one is left with the picture of a succession of politicians and civil servants with no sympathy for the short-term potential or the long-term needs of a major museum.
I have not yet met anyone in the museum profession who is not overjoyed at the recent change of government in this country. There seems to be no foundation for such joy. It is too early to know what effect, if any, a new government will have on museums and specifically on the conservation profession. One pre-election suggestion was that there would be an even greater emphasis on access to museum collections. Two means of achieving this were mentioned: first there should be no financial barrier to entering a museum. The ideology of free entry in the absence of adequate funding has led to the elimination of a meaningful conservation presence in Glasgow museums. At the recent British Museum conference - 'The Interface Between Science and Conservation' - it was remarked that the changes in Glasgow had, at a stroke, reduced the number of conservation scientists in Great Britain by ten percent. This loss affects all conservators and hence all collections in this country.
The second means of ensuring greater access is to take the objects to the people by means of travelling exhibitions. In his 'Touring Exhibitions Manifesto' Julian Spalding remarks that touring exhibitions are museums. He explains that the science of conservation is there to provide 'great improvements in both safety and accessibility', and the role of the conservator is 'to find a way of doing what the organisers of touring exhibitions want'. An increase in travelling exhibitions would seem to imply an increased need for conservators and conservation scientists. But throughout the country this is not the trend.
Individual museums may work out their own balance between preservation and access in the short term, but these two factors are only a part of the equation. To achieve balance in the relationship between income, access and preservation requires a long-term understanding between government and museum administrations about the continuing role of museums and their collections.