July 1998 Issue 28
Six-month Internship in Decorative Surfaces
I have been asked by the Editor to give my view of being an intern at the Victoria and Albert Museum and what follows is written in the spirit of constructive criticism.
Before coming to the V&A, I had obtained a Higher National Diploma in Furniture Restoration (1994), attended a part-time course in Furniture Finishing (1994), and received a BSc(Hons.) in Restoration and Conservation of Decorative Surfaces on Wood and Metal (1996) from London Guildhall University. I had also undertaken two previous three-month internships: the first at the Society for the Preservation of New England's Antiquities in Boston (1995) and the second with The Corporation of European Cabinetmakers and Restorers in Brussels (1997). These experiences allowed me to compare approaches and practices in the different countries.
I applied for an internship at the Victoria and Albert Museum for many reasons: the V&A is the world's largest museum of decorative arts; the Conservation Department has an international reputation for conservation practice and research; and lectures and seminars offered by the RCA/V&A Course in Conservation are open to interns.
I am now three months into my internship and I have just completed my second project, a French cabinet c.1780. The many different materials present in the cabinet offered a real challenge. The carcass is oak, the veneer ebony and the top marble. The cabinet is decorated with Japanese lacquer panels and ormolu mounts.
The process of conservation involved the following: I was briefed by the curator, made a photographic record, carried out research, prepared a condition report and treatment proposal to be discussed with my supervisor. Scientific analysis of the cabinet included examination using handheld ultraviolet light, cross-section samples taken for UV fluorescence and visible light analysis, and solvent tests. Treatment included consolidation, cleaning, infilling and inpainting. Treatment was recorded in a written report and with photographs.
Both research and treatment involved rewarding collaboration. Curators in the Far Eastern Collection were consulted about the origins of the motives on the lacquer panels. It turned out that the cabinet had a story to tell as, at some point, Europeans had made a few additions to the Japanese motives on the panels. The cross-sections were examined and explained by staff in the Science Group. My treatment of the ormolu mounts was carried out under supervison in Metalwork Section.
My work here has also involved environmental monitoring of galleries, examination of the condition of gilded chairs, and carrying out 'first aid' on gilded surfaces.
Being an intern in such a large institution has given me, in the main, a privileged feeling. This is partly due to the competition for places and partly due to the overabundance of information which is available - in the Conservation Department's library, the National Art Library, and from staff in the Museum. This feeling of privilege contrasts with the feeling of powerless which I have from time to time because of the temporary state of an internship and the sometimes varying levels of supervision, engendered by the busyness of staff and the many ongoing projects.
Working here has made me think a lot more about ethics in conservation. The first point of reference is always the Conservation Department's 'Ethics Checklist', which is a list of questions conservators can ask themselves when approaching a range of conservation tasks. However, being a lot simpler and perhaps more versatile than conventional codes like for example the AIC list in its comprehension, the result is a slight difference in treatment policies between sections. It is also true to say that in conservation generally there is usually more than one solution to a treatment procedure and individuals often have their preferred methods or skills. Certainly, the overall advantage of the Checklist is that it allows for investigation and experimentation, thereby making the Victoria and Albert Museum an interesting place to work and study.