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Editorial - Accreditation

Jonathan Ashley-Smith
Head of Conservation

Towards the end of 1998 I was one of a small group engaged in a prolonged debate on the subject of 'Future Challenges for Conservation'. The organisers, English Heritage, will be publishing the main part of the discussion and the conclusions of the group. The core group was composed of UK participants and although both the whole world and the distant future were discussed, the conclusions inevitably centred on local matters and possible actions in the immediate future.

One obvious weakness of the UK Conservation profession is that it is represented by a number of different bodies with different aims and diverse standards. These have been recently drawn closer together by the 'Conservation Forum'. However, a forum is not a cohesive body with a single voice and set of standards. The group felt that there should be a rapid move to form a single professional body.  The long awaited move towards a system of accreditation for conservators was felt to be a strong focus for unification. It was automatically assumed that accreditation was a good thing.

In the part of my soul that reflects my long involvement with Conservation, I automatically think it must be 'a good thing'. There are many different routes to a specified level of knowledge and skill. An academic qualification is only a part (and possibly not a necessary part) of reaching that level. It is somewhat arrogant to assume that all the products of a particular training scheme will develop to a universally accepted standard. I have paid my £200 so that I may be assessed by my peers in the hope that I will be evaluated as competent.

In the part of my soul that has espoused a short-term managerial outlook and with the  arrogance that automatically goes with a permanent job in a National Museum, it is less obvious that accreditation is useful. In the short term, it will make no difference to our relationship with internal clients whether 0%,50% or 100% of Conservation staff are accredited.

In the short term we are likely to recruit or contract what we see as the best person to do a job, using criteria other than accreditation to evaluate competence. For some while to come, when somebody leaves, the elite label  'worked at the V&A' is likely to carry more weight than any systematic peer-reviewed evaluation.

However in the longer run it is possible to imagine a situation where accreditation does genuinely discriminate the competent from the incompetent, rather than just those who choose to join and those who do not. It is also possible to imagine that this will not occur unless major employers begin to use it as a criterion for selection long before it becomes an absolute measure for discrimination.