October 1999 Issue 33
Editorial - Changing Landscapes
At a recent meeting someone who has to deal with a range of Government Departments and Agencies remarked that 'the whole landscape is changing'. This conjured up a colourful psychedelic image of shifting hills, trees and clouds. However he said it so forcefully that this description of uncertainty about the future made 'the goalposts have changed' seem fairly low key and an 'uneven playing field' seem quite attractive. There are clear indications from the Government about the direction in which publicly funded museums should be heading. There is less clarity about the final destination or about the effects of the process of change.
The changing landscape includes the newly formed body MLAC, ( Museums, Libraries and Archives Council), an advisory and strategic body independent of government but working closely with it, particularly on areas such as access, education and social exclusion. The fate of what most of us know as the Conservation Unit (although it changed its name some years ago), currently administered by the defunct Museums and Galleries Commission, is uncertain. Political pressure for increased access is bound to have some long term effect on perceptions of the importance of preservation.
Another geophysical change is the new recognition of separate nations within the United Kingdom. This provides potential for development of influential conservation centres in Scotland and Wales where there was little hope of a central institution for the UK. The development of the regions, not just as 'places somewhere outside of London', but as powerful local administrations will have effects on training and education. But there is just too much uncertainty to make predictions let alone plans.
Closer to home the landscape is also changing. Galleries on two floors at the front of the Museum have been completely stripped in preparation for the installation of totally new displays of objects depicting British art and design from the years 1500-1900. This project, known to those involved as 'The British Galleries', or noted simply in most people's diaries as 'BG', is the largest gallery project that the Museum has attempted for fifty years. Early stages of the development of this project were described in Volume 27 of this Journal. Many of the articles in this issue relate to this project, as it has become the central focus of the Department's work and will continue to be so until after the galleries open in two years time.
The very size of the project has meant that the Department has had to come to terms with uncertainty at several levels. The design of the galleries has been a slow, organic process with inevitable changes of mind about the importance and method of display of individual objects. Meanwhile the conservators have had to plan programmes of work based on estimates derived from specific items. These estimates, each of which inevitably involves a degree of possible error, must be built into bids for the necessary resources. The estimates cannot contain too much leeway or the funds will not be granted, nor can they be so precise that there is no room for manoeuvre.
The size of the project and the necessary method of working in project teams with project funding is bound to have a long term effect on future work patterns within the Museum.