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Masters Not Slaves - New Technology In The Service Of Conservation

Tim Carpenter
Information Systems Manager, Conservation Management Services

Introduction

In the 1984 summer edition of what was then called the Conservation Newsletter, Dr Jonathan Ashley-Smith published an article entitled 'Confessions'1 . He stated that he might have been a bit hasty in embracing the dawn of personal computers and all that it offered the Conservation Department. He feared that there was a real danger of allowing this 'small box with inanimate bits of wire'2  to dictate the working practices of the Department, so that the slaves have become the masters. I believe that to a certain extent Dr Ashley-Smith's fears are as true today as they were sixteen years ago. In this article I will explore to what extent the Department exists in a digital cage of our own creation. But, I will also outline avenues where IT can be employed to enhance the work of the conservator and present these works to a wider audience. 

The key to any effective systems implementation or enhancement is to ensure that it addresses a real need or development rather than employing technology for technology's sake. It is worth remembering that the construction of Stonehenge, St Paul's Cathedral and even The Crystal Palace was executed without the aid of networked PCs. However, I assume that the custodians were happy with the end result: the venues were generally self-publicising and public attendance was, and still
is good (although the original purpose of these constructions may have changed). The 'Digital Revolution' has changed the working practices of almost every office and organisation throughout the world, and typewriters are now more likely to be exhibited in the V&A than used in any of its offices. These advances in technology can potentially provide unlimited development opportunities within the Conservation Department.

What we're aiming for

A new phrase has emerged to encompass all of this exciting new technology: 'Information Systems'.  The temptation is to embrace everything that information technology has to offer in the hope of creating a universal electronic fountain of all knowledge. So what makes the Department hesitant? The answer is quite clear. It is an increasing concern that the current information systems in the Department are dictating the working practices of the conservator, effectively taking conservators away from other important tasks within the Museum such as condition surveys; promoting the work of the department internally and externally; and of course practical conservation. The ultimate goal has to be an integrated system that services the information needs of the Department, the Museum and the profession as a whole; providing maximum efficiency with minimum maintenance. 

Why isn't it working as well as it was intended?

Many of the conservators have commented that certain IT based practices within the Department were managed far more effectively with the use of simple forms and checklists; one example being the movement and tracking of objects within the Department. There are inherent advantages using paper-based systems. Paper can be written on, corrected and circulated with more ease than with a PC.  Paper is more flexible and there is no need to print out a hard copy of something that is already…hard.  Therefore, it is imperative that there is a demonstrable benefit to spending time on updating electronic object location systems (CONCISE, the British Galleries object database) and therefore away from practical conservation.

To this end, consideration has to be given to the amount of time that conservators spend maintaining or retrieving information from systems. There should be an acceptance from the people that require electronic information from conservators that the time spent working at the computer is time taken away from other equally important activities. Thought should also be given to the long-term relevance of the information it produces. A database that records the movement of objects is more useful than a file full of paper to certain parties within the museum, but only if the database is well designed and maintained. This is time consuming and requires quite a high level of  IT knowledge. Is it the responsibility of the conservators to become database operators?

There also needs to be a distinction between management information and information systems.  Management information is a monitoring tool, an upward flow of information that has a limited audience and life span. Information systems should be designed with a longer-term view. They need to provide relevant information at a variety of levels to satisfy the information needs of a multitude of audiences. In short, information systems should provide recyclable information. The loss of valuable time and resources occurs when an information system is designed purely as a tool for generating management information. Management information should be a by-product, rather than the end product of an effective information system.   

Not the answer, but the way forward

It is sometimes useful to put aside the word 'system' and replace it with the concept of 'service'.  Existing systems should have their usefulness assessed in the workplace to ensure that they are effective tools within the Department rather than a system that produces a restricted end product. Information systems should carry out a function that could not be executed in any other way but via a computer.

Any new post within the Department has an agreed job description, recruitment, interview, contract, probationary period and regular reviews to assess progress to a given performance criterion. So should information systems. The key to a successful information system is employing the correct people with the correct skills to research, consult and service the needs, allowing the specialists to concentrate on the work at hand.

The Happy Ending

Successful partnerships can be established between the conservator and information technology. A good example of this is in the recent advances made in digital image applications. Images could be taken by a conservator of an object from its initial assessment during a condition survey, through the various stages of conservation, to either subsequent display or storage. Storage and manipulation of these images is simple and cost effective, and would serve both as a record, and as a useful resource for publication (in hard copy or on the web) to conservators and curators alike. Thus, use of digital imaging technology can provide a reusable resource, useful within the Department, within the Museum, and with potential to disseminate information world wide through the Internet.

Conservators and scientists within the Department are constantly adding to their existing fund of information and sharing their findings through published works and seminars both at national and international level. There are also a number of research projects within the department. By publishing these works and even theV&A Conservation Journal itself on the Internet, the potential audience is significantly increased. There are also opportunities to instigate more adventurous projects such as a virtual conservation studio, on-line consultation or digital video imaging.

People constantly see themselves moving forward, taking time only to glance back and gloat over the primitive technology and applications that were employed previously. However, as I have discussed, there must be a tangible, measurable benefit to any new system employed within the Department.
As the use of information technology becomes increasingly less specialised and therefore more widespread, the work of the conservator will continue to be a highly specialist activity. If we are to accept that information systems are an inevitable part of the conservator's life, we have to objectively monitor the relationship between the computer and the conservator to ensure that optimum time is given to this specialist work.

References

1. Ashley-Smith, J., Confessions, V&A Newsletter, No.21, 1984, pp33.
2. Ibid