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Editorial - Change, Access and Permanence

Jonathan Ashley-Smith
Head of Conservation

The fundamental principle of conservation is to slow or stop the process of change. To predict the state of things in the future you need to know the present position, the causes of change and the rate at which change is likely to take place. The processes of change that directly affect objects can be very slow. Yet the changes within the conservation profession that affect those in work or looking for work are currently quite rapid. 

If you study the staff charts printed on the back page of issues of this journal over the past seven years you will see how external factors have continued to effect the size, structure and composition of the Department. Changes in non-Nationals and Area Museum Services have been much more dramatic. The dominant external factor has been the funding strategy of government, unchanged with the change of administration.

The present government has placed great emphasis on 'access'. At one time conservators might have thought that the greater emphasis of their job should be on preservation, but now organisations seeking government funds are explicitly demanding an involvement in access. Recent advertisements for conservation posts have contained phrases such as: 'The successful candidate will demonstrate a commitment to increasing access to collections...'  and  ' ...is required to suggest improvements for access to collections'. 

Recent issues of this Journal have concentrated on the Department's involvement with traditional  means of access through display in exhibitions and new galleries, as well as through the use of new technologies to allow greater appreciation of small and delicate objects such as portrait miniatures. Often forgotten, and frequently less glamorous, is the conservation work necessary to allow access to objects in print rooms and reading rooms. The rebinding of the Dicken's manuscripts described in this issue indicates the amount of thought and practical work necessary to combine access with long term preservation.

Another wish of government is that museums should form useful collaborations. In the area of conservation research this has been a long tradition. The report on the use of the portable laser Raman spectrometer  to analyse the pigments in miniatures is a further example. Other articles deal with permanence; permanence of sources of information such as photocopies; permanence of the effect of treatment.
Permanence of employment, although not entirely a thing of the past, is certainly on the decline. The number of 'permanent' conservators at the V&A has dropped by 15%. A recent development is the invitation to tender, not only for specific projects, but for blocks of time to carry out duties that would previously have been the responsibility of permanent staff. If that method is to increase, then the Conservation profession's recent move towards accreditation, assuring defined levels of competence, is very timely.