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Editorial - British Galleries

Nick Umney
Project Manager, British Galleries Project

This journal is but one sign of the willingness and desire of the Department to share information with others. Another recent sign has been the creation of a huge database of conservation information about the condition and treatment needs of thousands of objects being relocated as part of the British Galleries project described by Nick Humphrey. His article creates for us a glowing vision, but one that will take around 150,000 hours of conservation time alone to complete over the next four years. This will be a superb achievement. It will also be hard work and sometimes frustrating. Along with all this hard work will come some wonderful opportunities for personal and professional development, teamwork, training partnership building, and research.

The conservation condition assessment, itself an impressive piece of team work carried out to help the Museum plan this enormous venture, provides an example of the kind of collaboration that will be needed for this project. A successful project  is one which is delivered on time, on budget, to critical acclaim and without damaging our ability to work  together in the future. We should remember that in addition to the traditional three criteria for managing projects - schedule, cost and quality - there is a fourth and equally important factor - people. The complexity of the British Galleries Project will see many different groups of people working together, sometimes in new ways, and it will be very much our  ability to work together and  to synthesise our various views of the project that will determine our ultimate success.

The next steps for conservation involve preparation of objects currently on display for relocation elsewhere; either into storage, or returned to their owners, or on temporary redisplay in the Museum, or on loan; so that as far as possible they can be available for public access while the galleries are closed. Some of the objects will be moved by Museum staff, some by a relocation contractor. Every step in the process will have been agreed by all those affected before it happens in August. This is accompanied by a great deal of related activity elsewhere in the Museum. A new building is being erected off site to enhance our storage capacity. Sculpture Collection is clearing a large part of its existing display space to provide a space for temporary redisplay and prototyping of new ideas for the British Galleries. 

While this is going on, conservation will begin preparing objects for redisplay, for photography to meet publication needs, and for the interpretive devices that will be used in the new galleries. The activities of the Department extend well beyond this. Conservation is working with the Design Team to develop an environment and display policy, and strategies for rotation of objects on display, as well as researching and developing new methods to enhance the protection of objects on open display, and carrying out formal risk assessments on the design. Scientific and technical analysis of objects and period rooms and testing of materials for use in displays is also required.

Three separate gallery teams working with thirteen collections and ten conservation sections, plus photographers, technical services and others, means that a great deal of communication will need to take place between us. As I write this, sytems for the British Galleries are going in that will allow us all to have access to the same information. This technology is very necessary, but it is not, in itself,  a sufficient condition for effectiveness and harmony.  Application of the huge diversity of skills, knowledge and experience required to make this project happen necessarily brings together people who are conditioned to see things differently. 

To be truly effective we all need the humility and reverence to recognize our own perceptual limitations, and to appreciate the rich resources available through the hearts and minds of other human beings.  Is it logical that two people can disagree and that both can be right? It's not logical, it's psychological - and it's very real. If we can value the difference in our perceptions and give credence to the possibility that life is not a dichotomous 'either/or', that there is almost always a third alternative, we will be able to transcend the limits of our conditioning. By doing this we will increase our own self awareness and we will free up energy, that might have been used in defending a particular position, for more creative and productive use.