July 1999 Issue 32
Editorial - A Taste for the New?
The Victoria and Albert Museum recently celebrated the one hundredth birthday of its name. The future brings not only a new year but a new millennium. Birthday and new year celebrations are times for new resolutions and new opportunities as well as nostalgia for things past.
The Museum's new year resolution is to place contemporary design in the foreground of its activities. The present will be the gateway to the past, not the other way round. The physical affirmation of this resolution will be the Spiral building, designed by Daniel Libeskind. While it will itself be a statement of contemporary design, it will also create a new way of entering and understanding the Museum. It will be an arena for displays and events that demonstrate the V&A's involvement in what is not merely contemporary, but challenging, fast changing and cutting edge.
That description does not immediately match a common vision of conservation. Conservation is slow. Conservation is about things that are old and failing. It is about putting a stop to processes. Indeed, conservation has a reputation for putting a stop to anything. It could be seen as an attempt to prevent anything moving into the future. It should be seen as an attempt to enable the past to be seen in the future.
In reality, progress in conservation is just the same as it is in art and design. It develops slowly by building on past successes. Only very rarely does it take radical leaps. It returns to old failures and tries to revive them in a modern context. It takes advantage of the latest materials and technology. It has fashions. Some practitioners achieve fame within their peer group, very few outside it. The majority don't even get their fifteen minutes. So following this comparison, there must be something that could be called 'contemporary conservation'.
Because of its size and long history, because of the challenges of the Museum's varied collections, and especially because of its integration into an energetic post-graduate training and research environment, the Conservation Department at the V&A stands a chance of demonstrating some elements of contemporary activity. There is evidence of this in this issue of the Journal.
As with art, it is difficult to decide whether something is hot or just warm enough to be still alive. Is it modern to mention Richard Wolbers' work or faintly historic? With some events such as the opening of a new store, the newness is totally local and outside observers may wonder what took us so long.
Some activities speak more obviously of the contemporary. One of the strong research and development themes that is emerging is the use of computer imaging in conservation. Originating with Alan Cummings' enthusiasm for the subject, this theme has generated an active group of students, large enough to support each others development and to encourage the use of these techniques elsewhere in the Department.
Some other areas may not look new as immediately and obviously as 3D imaging. The fashion for energy saving has passed its hype-by date. But the problems of economy in museums are severely up-to-date. The collaborative project to find energy efficient ways of controlling dirt and pollutants in galleries is bringing new evidence and may break down old prejudices.
The discovery of old conservation techniques may at first sight seem to lead only to another chapter in the history of the profession - a past from which we have progressed. However, the discovery of Bakelite as a treatment for stone indicates that there has always been a willingness to investigate the very latest materials. This feeds into the current debate about reversibility and re-treatment, the subject of a conference at the British Museum later this year and no doubt a point of discussion in next year's fashionable debate. Just because mistakes were made in the past does not mean it is more saintly to stand back and do nothing.