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Editorial

Jonathan Ashley-Smith
Head of Conservation

If you keep on doing the same thing you won't stay in business, to stay in business you have to keep developing. The world outside is changing rapidly and you have to keep up if not stay one jump ahead. Changes outside the Museum increasingly need to be reflected within the Museum. Any external consultant will tell you these things if only because management gurus such as Charles Handy have been saying them for so long it has become gospel. Such consultation is becoming more prevalent within institutions, perhaps because rapid change may  increase the need for consultancy. The question that arises is  how much do you have to change and in what way?

In the past quarter I have been away from work and from home at two management residentials - two separate groups in need of a new focus and both looking to find out the direction and speed of change necessary for survival. Both believed that by listening to the views of a small number of outsiders, and by concentrated structured discussion well away from the distractions of everyday Museum life, they could arrive at a consensus and a strategy.

The first group consisted of around twenty (mostly senior) conservators from the V&A Conservation Department  in search of 'quality'. The second was a slightly larger group of the senior managers of the whole Museum in search of 'the big idea'. The strategic focus for the Museum was deemed to be 'improving the visitor experience'. This necessarily stems from government policy about access and social inclusion and follows from our Director's encouragement that all activities in the Museum should be seen to have an educational content and be visitor-centred.

The conservators' search for  a relevant definition of 'quality' trod similar ground. This is not surprising because all definitions of public sector quality are about continuous improvement  in service and attention to customer needs. The difficulty with both the Museum and its subset, the Conservation Department, is that it is always possible to find someone to say that what you are doing at the moment is perfectly alright, indeed positively brilliant. The fact that not a lot of people know how brilliant you are is not seen as a criticism but merely a failure of  communication. 

The truth may actually be that a few key people are not aware of successes and achievements. The 'performance gap' is between planned service and 'perceived' service not between planned and actual delivery. Altering the perceptions in only one or two individuals may lead to a large and apparent improvement in quality.

This edition of the Journal confirms that we are not afraid of change, that we are willing to accept new ideas and challenges such as the deterioration of unusual materials used in contemporary art. We are willing to collaborate with others to arrive at new standards for the study of light ageing of objects and conservation materials. We set ourselves high standards by aiming for high academic qualifications and national awards. We discuss amongst ourselves, and with others, ways in which we could change what we do. Above all we communicate this widely and in the hope that those few key people may receive and understand the message.