Accreditation for Conservators - What Do We Think?

Alison Richmond
Course Tutor, RCA/V&A Joint Course in Conservation

At the end of October 1998, the United Kingdom Institute for Conservation invited its members to apply for Fast-Track Accreditation. The Institute for Paper Conservation is also planning to launch its own fast-track scheme this Spring. Both precede the Joint Accreditation Scheme (UKIC, IPC and Society of Archivists) which is currently in the consultation phase and due to be introduced in January 2000.

To stimulate interest and provide a forum for discussion, we invited Jane Henderson, a member of the UKIC Accreditation Working Group, and now a consultant to the Joint Accreditation Committee, to come and talk to us in early November. To a get an impression of the response of conservators here at the V&A, I talked to members of staff who were eligible for Fast Track about their views on accreditation. I also counted how many of those eligible intended to apply (out of 40 eligible 31 said 'yes'; 6 said 'no'; and 3 were undecided).

Almost everyone I interviewed acknowledged the benefits of accreditation. High on the list of immediate benefits was protecting the public by providing a mechanism for challenging wrong decisions or incompetent work. Positive outcomes in the longer term included raising the status and reputation of the profession and adding support in negotiations for higher pay.

Accreditation could also support us in other aspects of being a professional; for example, in taking an ethical stance which may conflict with other requirements and offering the possibility of applying for personal liability insurance. One conservator highlighted the soundness of the competence-based principles of the proposed schemes. 'This route demonstrates that you can do it, no matter how many degrees you have. It establishes our credentials and will lead to a unified profession.'

People felt that it was important that all conservators take part, both those in public institutions and private businesses. When asked about accreditation for V&A conservators, most believe that 'as employees of a national museum it is our duty to take part. Moreover, we have an obligation to help direct the process. We have the time and resources to do so (although we might have to fight for them!)' It is also a personal responsibility which has to do with an individual's career development.

From the point of view of other professionals working in conservation (for example scientists, but there are many others) who already have accredited (chartered) status, there are a number of issues. These include potential conflict of interest, the financial burden of paying for two schemes, and the competency of conservation bodies to judge other professions.

People also recognised that any scheme will have its problems. '…It is inevitable that people will be accredited who shouldn't be… In such a small profession it will be difficult to deal with those who do not come up to the expected level.' 'There will be a lot to learn from Fast-Track. For example, it is very difficult to come up with statements that can be related to all areas of conservation and there will be more work to do to make the criteria more focused.'

Some expressed their concerns. These fell into two main areas: the response of the Museum as a corporate body, and the future of accreditation once Fast-Track is completed.

While Jonathan Ashley-Smith, the Head of Conservation, has given his personal approval and resources have been made available for staff to act as sponsors, the V&A does not, as yet, have a policy on accreditation. Many felt it was important for the Museum to make its position clear as soon as possible for a number of reasons. Firstly, as the Conservation Department of a national museum, we are in the spotlight. 'How can we make statements like "we are at the cutting edge of conservation" or "we are a centre of excellence" if we can't back it up with something concrete?'

Secondly, there is a danger of establishing a two-tiered system if, once accreditation is established, the Museum employs contract or permanent staff who are not accredited. Lastly, for a full-blown accreditation scheme to work 'the Museum must offer more than vague support. The process of accreditation must be built into the management/staff appraisal system…There needs to be a pro-active approach to preparing for accreditation.'

Other concerns centred on the future and specifically on the projected costs for candidates. While nobody is happy at having to pay £200 for Fast-Track - one conservator felt that the Museum should pay as a gesture of support - most feel that it is a sacrifice that must be made. Some younger conservators already feel that even current charges for Fast-Track would be prohibitive. If we assume that most senior conservators will have gone for Fast-Track, that will leave mostly younger people, employed at the lower end of the financial scale, to apply for accreditation.

How will they afford the costs of accreditation which are currently being projected at around £600, when they may already have substantial debts incurred by primary training and internships? There is a real danger that the system will exclude the people who need it most. If this happens who will carry the scheme forward into the future?