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Twenty First Century Conservation

Jonathan Ashley-Smith
Head of Conservation

At the time of writing it is the twentieth century, but by the time this piece is published it will be the twenty-first. This apparently rapid and dramatic change is an indication of how meaningless labels can be. It can be seen as an analogy for the process by which a short drive turns the latest auto model into a used car, and acquisition by a museum converts a contemporary artwork into a historic artefact.

The beginning of the twenty-first century is obviously 'contemporary'. The word 'contemporary', which in its current usage at the V&A indicates 'NOW', carries with it a little bit of the past but a much greater part of the future.  At the very least, to be contemporary is to be uniquely and comfortably ahead of the uninformed majority.

With this in mind, contemporary conservation can be discussed under three headings:

  • current and future conservation issues
  •  future problems with current artefacts
  •  future solutions to old problems with older artefacts.

Current and future conservation issues

There are two ways of deciding what future conservation issues might be. The first is acrasia, the phenomenon where people continue to act in a particular way even though they are fully aware that it is wrong or stupid. Publishers continuing to produce books, magazines and newspapers from materials that have predictably short lives, and for which there are known alternatives, would come into this category. So too would museums that continue to acquire vast archives without any hope of adequately storing or cataloguing them.

The second test is to look for future references to conservation problems. Science Fiction writers are usually intelligent people who have extrapolated carefully and consistently from specific sections of the current reality and their views, although fiction, are worthy of study. In the 1960s Harry Harrison1 predicted the neglect of the paper archive due to economic pressures and electronic alternatives. Twenty years ago Donald Moffit2  suggested that even currently commonplace plastic objects such as bleach bottles would be collected for their rarity and treasured for obvious signs of their deterioration.

E.M. Forster's classic The Machine Stops3, written before the first world war, warns of the fate that awaits the human race if it develops an over-dependence on a single world-wide electronic means of communication, information and entertainment. On the positive side, in 'Galactic Pot-healer', Philip K. Dick4 expects there to be a long-term future need for ceramics conservators. And specialists in the fragility of civilisation Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle5 see highly secure museums as the only way that knowledge of past progress will be made available to peoples emerging from future dark ages.

A more pedestrian and shorter term way of predicting future world states is the STEEP6 analysis. This looks at five groups of drivers for change; Social, Technological, Environmental, Economic and Political. Social, political and economic factors are sometimes difficult to disentangle. Longer human life expectancy and greater desire for lifelong learning may lead to optimism. But some interpretations of demands for social inclusion and access, when combined with decline in funding from national and local government, lead to more pessimistic predictions. Current ideas of future global climate change suggest an increasing mismatch between the specified environment in which museum buildings and stores were designed to function, and the environment in which they will find themselves

The technological factors that most people cite are the dramatic spread of the internet and the potential for interactive education using digital 'computers'. People who say that virtual reality is a threat to the value of the physical reality are criticised as Luddite and ignorant of the evidence. However, the short-term evidence is that use of the internet is increasing exponentially  and physical attendance at museums of historic artefacts is in decline.

Future problems with current artefacts

Both contemporary artefacts and contemporary ideas about display pose conservation problems. Modern materials are not necessarily designed for long life and, by definition, have not had a long period of testing in service. We know that polyurethane foams in furniture and toys disintegrate within decades. We know that  textiles containing elastanes are sensitive to humidity and light and have life-spans even more limited than those made with impermanent natural fibres such as silk. As with the materials, the methods of construction of contemporary objects may well be experimental and fail in use or in time. Objects that have failed this way in the past are obviously not available.  And contemporary objects fail in the museum before our eyes.

Within historic collections, the object and its unique physicality is all that is left. The function of the object in context is lost. What may actually be more important is its context within an  historic event or some exploit of its owner or designer With contemporary objects this is generally not the case. The context, connections and active use of the artefact are obvious and available. This means that the relative value of the object itself can be quite small and the need for preservation is not apparent. Or perhaps it is that the need to preserve all the other evidence of the context should be as important.

The electronic age also provides vehicles for information such as radios, televisions and personal CD players which are sometimes beautiful artefacts, although they may seem obviously empty as non-functioning museum objects.  However, no matter how interesting the original vehicles, the information which they can present is considered more important. The media for storing this information (such as tapes and CDs) do not have guaranteed long working lifetimes, but the main problem is one of maintenance of compatible systems; a betamax tape requires a betamax player in order to display the information it contains. Constant reformatting of information from obsolete to current systems is expensive, and therefore selective. Meanwhile obsolescence reduces the value of the original vehicle to a point where it will seem too extravagant to spend money on repairing and re-using it (even if spare parts are still available).

These days much information is presented (it would be misleading to say 'maintained'), only in electronic form. There is no original or subsequent physical object that can be interrogated or enjoyed without using an electronic system. Internet sites are not automatically archived  and changes may take place without there being any record of development. This can lead to subtly wrong interpretations of the recent past. This is a growing preservation problem that challenges current definitions of archivist and conservator.

Beyond the glass case

The exhibition A Grand Design7 portrays the history of the V&A through its objects. The transition into the next century is dealt with in a section entitled 'Beyond the Glass Case'. Although there is very little public complaint about having to view historic objects through the walls of a display case, the glass box is seen as confining and inappropriate for contemporary material. Most members of the public will accept that there is a need for restricted light levels on historic material. Yet to many it seems ludicrously over-protective to suggest the same lighting regime for modern material. While everyone would accept that it was excessively damaging for models to wear original historic costume for display purposes, no-one would accept the views of a conservator who demanded that the latest fashion creation should not be displayed on a living moving human.

However the protection which is accepted for the historic object is equally needed for the modern if  it is intended that the contemporary object is to last longer and better than the rather sad looking historic artefact has so far managed. Many of the common physical and chemical agents of change inflict most damage in the earliest periods of exposure. Preventive conservation is most effective when started early. Indeed it can hardly be called preventive if it is delayed until the object is obviously damaged.

It is not wrong to deliberately damage objects, we do it all the time through display or conservation treatment. It may be wrong, or at least stupid, to damage objects unnecessarily fast where there is no obvious immediate benefit and there is a known long-term cost. The more we study contemporary materials and constructions the more we will find ourselves applying the acrasia criterion for predicting future conservation problems.

Future solutions to old problems with older artefacts

Digital technology handles mathematics more happily than do the majority of museum staff.  Mathematical modelling can be used to predict future states of collections. The systems deal with the concept of probability more readily than do human beings who are always looking for some pattern, some simple cause and effect relationship. Mathematical modelling could also lead to greater understanding of the value museum decision-makers place, not only on the present state of objects, but also on the future state. It is important to understand the differing ways that politicians and museum managers discount the future benefits to be derived from collections. Understanding is important if we are to keep a sense of proportion focussing on key problems. We need to avoid getting upset now about contemporary practices that will not lead to serious future conservation issues.

If the pace of change is getting faster, then the first two decades of the next century should bring many times more change than we have seen in the last two of the present century. This would not be asking much in terms of new materials for conservation treatment since nothing useful has appeared recently. If there has been a trend it has been mostly toward new attitudes, and very little toward new practical techniques. If recent trends are continued there will be increasingly less practical intervention. Computer visualisation techniques allow virtual restoration. This is not often used to plan actual improvements to the real object but more frequently seen as a substitute for the proposed intervention. Thus once again modern technology could be a threat not only to the value of the real artefact but to the future of a skilled artisan.

Some of the questions left unresolved in this discussion are the subject of research options proposed by RCA/V&A Conservation.  See details in the website at www.conservation.rca.ac.uk


1. Harrison., Harry,  Deathworld, Sphere Science Fiction, London, 1973. Story
written 1960.

2.  Moffit, Donald., The Jupiter Theft, Sphere Science Fiction, London, 1979.

3. Forster,.E.M., Collected Short Stories, Penguin Modern Classics,1954. Story
written c1910.

4. Dick, Philip,K., Galactic Pot Healer, Pan Books Ltd, London, 1969.

5. Niven, Larry and Pournelle, Jerry, The Mote in God's Eye, Macdonald Futura
Publishers Ltd, London, 1980. Story written 1975.

6. STEEP - as referenced in the draft document of the Skills Foresight Project 1999 prepared for the Cultural Heritage National Training Organisation

7. Baker, Malcolm, and Richardson, Brenda, A Grand Design: The Art of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Harry N. Abrams, Inc, Publishers with The Baltimore Museum of Art, New York 1997