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Editorial - Communication

Lynda Hillyer
Head of Textiles Conservation

The subject of this editorial is communication. Seven years ago, the editorial of the first issue of this publication was also about communication. Jonathan Ashley-Smith explained that the origin of the journal was probably a suggestion made at the first ever meeting of the whole of the Conservation Department in July 1978, and the main topic of that meeting was - guess what - communication!

The idea of producing a journal evolved slowly over a number of years but its beginnings lie in discussions among conservators about the need to improve channels of communication within the Department, within the profession as a whole, and to others with an interest in conservation. From these small beginnings the Journal has grown into an important platform for disseminating information about our current activities; it is eagerly read both within the Museum and well received by an international audience. Why then, are we talking about communication once again?

The last seven years have seen enormous changes both within the Museum and within the Conservation Department. A huge programme of international loans, gallery rotations and refurbishment and an increased number of departmental displays have been carried out in a climate of economic restraint. We have had to achieve more in limited time. We succeeded in doing this by learning to be more flexible and by spending more time planning in order to achieve a balance between the complex needs of the Museum, our roles within the Conservation Department and our external professional lives. These programmes of work have given us positive opportunities to develop innovative skills and techniques. Many of these advances have been published in past issues of the Journal.

Much new energy has been injected into the Department by the success of the RCA/V&A Joint Course in Conservation which actively promotes original research. It is flexible and creative enough to accommodate a huge variety of proposals, either in the museum or in partnership with other museums. At a lunch held for invited guests to the Course Symposium in July, one of the delegates enthusiastically remarked that the work of the graduating students had expanded the boundaries of conservation by giving us new insights into the way in which we examine and perceive objects.

The brilliant and exciting work on computer imaging carried out by Nick Frayling and Angela Geary is an obvious recent illustration of the way in which the Course contributes to the life of the Museum. The result of all this activity is a rich, complex and diverse Department which has a unique place in the conservation world and offers wonderful opportunities for staff development.

Are we making the most of these opportunities or are we spoilt for choice? A senior management meeting in Brighton last year discussed issues of communication and the need for a more focussed and structured approach to existing staff development programmes. Concerns have also been expressed on many levels that there is a need for more lateral communication across the Department. Accelerated work programmes and increased level of activity have meant that there are fewer opportunities to keep in touch with what may be happening in other sections.

The outcome of discussions was the formation of a small group which meets every month to coordinate development programmes throughout the Department. Members of the Communications Group represent the Journal (Sophy Wills), students (Helen Jones), interns (Alison Richmond) and permanent staff  (Lynda Hillyer). Alice Rymill provides a link with Science Group and gives administrative support; meetings are chaired by Jonathan Ashley-Smith. The role of the group is to provide an overview of activities in the Department and draw on these to initiate a framework programme every six months.

This may consist of RCA/V&A Course events, invitations to outside speakers, or study days involving issues which are relevant to everyone in conservation, such as research methods or current initiatives on accreditation. The framework builds on the programmes of communication which have been in existence in the Department for a number of years and incorporates staff seminars as well as providing free spaces which can be used for a variety of spontaneous events.

One new idea is to provide more opportunities for experiential learning in the form of practice exchange. The most essential function of the Department is practical work and each section contains an enormous well of experience and expertise. Many areas overlap and in a recent survey a number of common areas of interest were identified such as chelating agents, consolidation, adhesives, poultices, washing, metal cleaning etc. By the time this issue is published, the first workshop will have been held based on research carried out by one of our PhD students, Sandra Grantham, on the consolidation of fragile painted surfaces.

Places were quickly filled by conservators from paper, textiles, ceramics and sculpture conservation. The idea of workshop practice is essentially participatory and some preparation is needed so that a real exchange of experience can take place. For example, conservators may need to be familiar with relevant literature, prepare case histories for discussion or spend some time making facsimile samples in their own medium so that new approaches can be more realistically incorporated into their work.

The success of staff development programmes depends not only on the Communication Group but on the commitment of every member of the Department to continuing professional development. It is easy to complain about lack of communication but takes much more work to do something about it. The Group provides not only a planning mechanism but a forum for constructive ideas. Suggestions are welcome from anyone in the Museum. The aim is:

  • to encourage everyone to think creatively about current issues;
  • to be open to opportunities;
  • to learn more about resources, and about practice and techniques;
  • to be more aware of professional issues and policy discussions, not only in the Department but in the conservation world as a whole.

Our current involvement in the British Galleries project means that effective communication is more important than ever. The project offers a wealth of opportunities for productive discussion. It is up to us to make the most of it.