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Editorial - What is Research?

Graham Martin
Head of Conservation Research

As part of the continuous evaluation of the content of this Journal, the editors will be providing a sounding box for a number of 'guest' editorials. This is the first of these editorials and so those of you anticipating the words of wisdom from Jonathan Ashley-Smith will, sadly, be disappointed.

Part of the structure of the Conservation Department of the V&A is the group presently with the label of Research. I know that the continuous changes that manifest themselves in the staff chart are of interest to several groups outside the Museum, some of whom have made comments on this. I can tell you now that these changes will continue. The need to fine tune the Department for efficiency and to reflect the requirements of the V&A will be a continuous process. As part of this process the role and function of the Conservation Research Group is becoming clearer and, accordingly, there have been discussions about the meaning and concepts of 'research'. This has taken place within the framework of the V&A Museum Research Policy.

Similar debate has taken place under the umbrella of the European Union, in the UK at two recent conferences and within the Conservation Department itself about the research needs of the conservation profession and the interface between science and conservation. Throughout these discussions and debates it has become apparent that there is confusion with the terminology and expectations. The term 'research' has been used to mean conservation or technical analysis or, indeed, true research. Correspondingly, the word 'conservation' has also been employed to mean a myriad of different things.

Some of these incorrect uses of terminology can be attributed to translation difficulties when communicating across languages. For those of us whose first language is English there can be no excuse. The V&A Conservation Department has, over the past year, been working on the necessary policies and procedures for conservation research. This has led to much debate on the usual subjects of who, what, where, when and how research should take place. This process has necessitated the use of agreed terminology.

The release, for wider consumption, of the policy and related material produced by the Conservation Department is taking place as I write this editorial. Now that the Department has a common set of agreed and understood terminology we can move forward. The significance for the UK and the wider conservation communities is that we must have a commonly understood meaning of the terms used in our profession. This is vital if we are to communicate effectively and efficiently between ourselves and if we are to bid successfully for resources at the national and international level.

This edition of the Conservation Journal is very much to do with research. The dictionary definitions of the word include the concepts of systematic investigation, establishment of facts and new conclusions. At least some part of each of the articles presented here contains elements of research. This research extends from the object-based 'Can It Go?' article from Albert Neher which deals with the complexities of moving large three-dimensional objects, through the ethical issues of the conservation of a Wedding Suit by Gill Owens and then on to use of standard procedures and tests by Paula Mills. All of these come within our definition of 'research'. Of particular note is the wide range of the posts that these individual authors hold: furniture conservator, textile conservator and scientist. In order to develop the ideas and concepts within our profession, it is imperative that we all participate in research. Long gone are the days of the stereotypical scientist working away in isolation in the back room.

Attempting to provide a short definition of the term 'conservation research' has proved to be impossible. Only by providing examples of research have we been able to reach a common agreement on its meaning. By reading the articles in this Journal you will gain a clearer understanding of what is our meaning of the term 'research'.