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Review of the Conservation Staff Residential Meeting

Zenzie Tinker
Senior Textile Conservator, Textile Conservation

Carousel, Brighton Beach.

Carousel, Brighton Beach. Photograph by Clair Battisson (click image for larger version)

With such wonderful sea front views, the Queen's Hotel, Brighton would have been a good base for beach-combing and shopping along the lanes. But when about one third of the Conservation Department met there on a bright, cold February morning it was for the more weighty task of a two day residential meeting, to discuss some of the key issues facing the Department at the start of the new century. The participants were chosen to represent a range of experience and responsibilities across the Department including the Senior Management Group and Section Heads together with newer members of the Department and students.

In his introduction, Jonathan Ashley-Smith mentioned that this Department residential forum, like the previous two in 1991 and 1994, coincided with periods of great change within the Museum. He said that we should not be unduly worried by change because, as a Department, we are well used to coping with it. The changes we currently face are two-fold. Externally the Museum is adapting to meet new Government policies concerning, amongst other things, greater access and wider social inclusion.

Whilst internally the Museum is evolving a new management structure that places the Conservation Department within the soon-to-be-created Collection Services Division. A more project-based way of working is also being adopted by the Museum. Within this context, we were in Brighton principally to discuss quality; how we define it in terms of our work, how we can maintain it and how we can improve it. Guiding us through our heavy schedule was Kathryn Cornish from the V&A Training Section, our facilitator for the two days.

Quality is one of those 'spin' words we are used to hearing but high quality work is also something conservators care passionately about. Quality is after all, at the centre of our profession's new accreditation scheme, a competence-based assessment by our peers. We discussed how it might be useful, internally as well as externally, to define quality conservation and to explore the possibility of a Conservation Charter. If we can define quality conservation as we see it, we can then use it as a benchmark to judge ourselves against. We could then communicate it to others for the same purpose.  Our clients were represented by Gwyn Miles, Head of Major Projects at the V&A and Laura Drysdale, Head of Specialist Services at the Museums and Galleries Commission, now incorporated into Re:source. Deborah Swallow, Senior Chief Curator at the V&A was unfortunately, at the last moment, unable to attend.

Our discussions examined what we perceived to be our strengths and weaknesses as a Department.  It was of great interest then to hear what our client representatives thought of us and their views added greatly to the discussions, both during the official sessions and after. Perhaps reassuringly, Gwyn Miles felt that the Department is fulfilling the expectations of the V&A as a whole but she thought that we suffered from an 'island mentality' within the Museum. Whilst Laura Drysdale described us as iconic for our excellence, she questioned our relevance outside the Museum - to regional museums and to the public - and felt that we should be questioning our relevance too. 

The island metaphor was discussed at length particularly as communication came up as a key issue, as it has done before. Communication is probably at the root of  an interesting dichotomy that seems to exist about Conservation. Whilst it seems that conservators and the Conservation Department are perceived by others as always saying 'no', conservators themselves feel they are constantly saying 'yes' and are accommodating increasing demands for compromise. It was acknowledged that real or imagined conservation concerns could be used by others as an excuse to say 'no' in order to serve their own purposes.

Gradually our discussions were honed down, with the help of Kathryn Cornish, to a series of action plans to be taken back for further discussion with the rest of the Department, within the Sections and at a follow-up day involving the whole Department. On a personal level and as a relatively new member of staff, I found the residential extremely encouraging. It is good to talk and the themes were very relevant and therefore useful. 

For those of us who are not Section Heads, the opportunity to discuss such issues and to do so outside of our own Sections was perhaps particularly welcome. The varied format of the discussions both in the full group and in smaller teams, encouraged everyone to contribute. In his summing up, Jonathon Ashley-Smith said that he felt that the Department was already good at transmitting its message but that it was aimed at too limited an audience. Improving our scope will necessitate our becoming better receptors.

The residential was hard work and whilst the sea air and the excellent dinner at the Strand Restaurant helped to alleviate the strain, it is a shame that for economic reasons the whole department could not have been included. Before and after the residential, I have heard expressions ranging from disappointment to relief from colleagues who were not invited; both ends of the scale would have benefited from going. Hopefully, given time and some further development, the positive effects of the residential will be felt by the whole department and subsequently the Museum.

The success of the residential meeting had much to do with Alison Richmond's (Tutor, RCA/V&A Conservation) excellent planning and organisation of the event. Thanks are also due to Kathryn Cornish who guided us quietly but firmly and to Gwyn Miles and Laura Drysdale for their stimulating contributions.