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Outer Limits: The Ups and Downs of Being a Student on a Collaborative MA Couse

Laura Davies
RCA/V&A Conservation Course (with the Museum of London), MA student, Applied Art and Social History Conservation

Sketch by Laura Davies.

Sketch by Laura Davies. (click image for larger version)

The RCA/V&A Conservation Course is based upon the partnership between different institutions. As well as the two named participants,  Imperial College is formally involved, and increasingly there is collaboration with other institutions such as the Horniman Museum and the Tate Gallery. This article describes the conservation challenges posed by a social history collection, based on my experiences as an RCA/V&A student based at the Museum of London. 

In October 1996, I began an MA in Applied Art and Social History Object Conservation with the RCA / V&A Course, which was made possible by the co-operation of the Museum of London. The contribution of museums supervising students outside the V&A (where the majority of students are based), extends the range of training and research in which the Course is involved.

Being on a 'satellite' course is a challenging experience. The intense pace of the course is highly demanding, and being a lone student in a professional working environment, away from the course centre can feel isolated. However, the intimate and industrious Conservation Department at the Museum of London has provided a secure and welcoming base. The breadth of work with which I am involved during the time spent at the Museum is very rewarding. The opportunity to work in two institutions, has given me a valuable insight into the variety of possible approaches to a problem, which is what makes conservation such an interesting profession.

My MA subject is not typical of those offered by the RCA / V&A Course. Most students specialise in one material or type of object, and are based in the relevant section of the V&A Conservation Department. The title of my MA describes the diverse collection of objects that I am learning to conserve under the supervision of Robert Payton, Deputy Head of the Conservation Department, Head of Applied Arts Section. The field of social history object conservation is a relatively young one and can be difficult to define. It involves the application of  a broad knowledge of both organic and inorganic materials, along with an intuitive approach to the treatment of composite objects, often made up of unusual materials. These objects range from decorative arts pieces to labourers' tools. Their conservation has to take into consideration the demands for display as historical materials in a very progressive museum.

Figure 1. 19th century 'Cuir Bouilli' dockworker's hat. Museum of London no. MOL. 80.431. Photography by Laura Davies. Image reproduced with permission from the Museum of London.

Figure 1. 19th century 'Cuir Bouilli' dockworker's hat. Museum of London no. MOL. 80.431. Photography by Laura Davies. Image reproduced with permission from the Museum of London. (click image for larger version)

Definitions of social history can imply that the term is exclusive to the history of the working classes. 1  This is misleading however, because social history objects from the whole spectrum of society are a valuable source of information. 2  Interesting light can be shed on the relationships of different social classes simply by the juxtaposition of chosen objects. Some objects are the products of highly skilled makers. They are testimony to the influence of the fine arts and to the wealth of the Londoners who commissioned them. Others, which are domestically crafted, are unique in the way they have survived the wear and tear of the work for which they were intended. They often represent an innovative and resourceful use of materials, and possess a beauty in their expression of unofficial histories (Figure 1).

An ethical approach to social history conservation involves respect for the 'inherent nature' of these objects, and seldom involves restoration to some subjectively chosen former state. Evidence such as 'original dirt' and the signs of wear and tear are important, interpretable features, and can often place an object directly into its past context, adding to its  value. These objects, and their historical presence, give the viewer an empathy with the society and date of their origin.

The Collection at the Museum of London is socially all-embracing, and presents the long and complex story of the development of a major world city from prehistory to the present day. The success of the displays derives from the diversity of objects which are used to visually represent the character of London. Contextual displays are intended to convey a specific historical message, and these contextual displays often demand that artifacts of different materials are housed together in one showcase. Many objects are also shown in open room installations, and selected objects have to be prepared for handling purposes. The museum has a driving mission to increase the accessibility of all of the Collection. This has resulted in the creation of an open storage facility which also acts as a resource centre. This progressive approach to display can be in conflict with the conservation needs of the Collection, and creates interesting challenges for the conservation team.

The Conservation Department at the Museum of London is a very rewarding place to be a student. In a climate where the role of a museum is constantly changing and expanding, so must the role of the conservator. Being involved in effective collaboration between staff in different departments and institutions is an important aspect of conservation training. I feel the rounded education I receive from the conservation team at the Museum of London, the Course and the staff at the V&A is providing me with flexible, broad-based skills, which will be valuable to me in a changing conservation profession.


1.  Hewison,Robert, The Heritage Industry: Britain in a Climate of Decline, Methuen, London, 1987, p. 29
2.  Davies, S., Social History in Museums: The Academic Context, in Fleming, D.,(ed.), A Handbook for Professionals, HMSO in association with National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside and Museums Association, London, 1993 p.5