October 1997 Issue 25
Despite the best efforts of the production team this edition of the Journal will be issued behind schedule because of delays in producing the editorial. The most recent excuse for not writing it was my attendance at the conference ' Fabric of an Exhibition: An Interdisciplinary Approach' organised jointly by the Canadian Conservation Institute and the North American Textile Conservation Conference. The conference was notable for two things: the realism expressed in the presentations and the deceptive politeness of the open debate.
Textiles have a relatively short life expectancy compared to other object types. This life expectancy is further shortened if the objects must be on continuous display in a historic house because they are the only examples that have relevance in that context. At this conference there was consistent realistic and unemotional discussion about objects coming to the end of their lives, being used up and having to be replaced. Judging by the questions following the presentations there was total agreement in the audience about everything that was said. Yet within huddled whispering groups at coffee and later in the bar there was violent disagreement with at least two of the talks. In one instance a locally important object had not been allowed to die in dignity but was condemned to spend eternity in what many dubbed the 'iron lung'. In another, objects that were quite capable of being revived were left in a sorry state because of the potential importance of the dirt and creases. My criticism is not about either of these two approaches but about the lack of open discussion of them. If we feel so strongly about something why are we so afraid to criticise?
In this issue of the Journal we have encouraged criticism of our own work by commissioning two non-conservators to review the conservation students' degree show exhibition. Other articles stress the importance of communication with people in other institutions and other disciplines. Many of the authors are not from the Conservation Department but their contributions indicate the value of collaboration and of sharing ideas. If the Internet is to achieve its potential then we must be willing to be open and to share all available information. It is not a medium for secrecy or control. This will require a difficult change in attitude for many who are obsessive about controlling information and are afraid of the criticism implicit in someone else interpreting their data in new or different ways.
Finally, a few words about Anna Plowden, private sector conservator and trustee of this Museum, who died recently. During the 1980s she and I worked together to try to reduce the gulf that divided conservators in institutions from those in the private sector. We shared information about materials and techniques and also about management and organisation. Students from our diploma course were given work experience in her studios and members of her staff received specialist training in the Museum. However, at the time, this relationship was viewed in both sectors with immense mistrust. When she was selected to be on our Board of Trustees, this was not hailed as recognition of the status of the conservation profession but received with total incomprehension and suspicion. Now, some years later on, I hope that the greater integration of the public and private sectors is a sign that attitudes have changed.