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A concise approach: Managing information for the British Galleries Conservation Programme

Tim Carpenter
Information Systems Manager

Victoria Oakley
Head of Ceramics & Glass Conservation, Conservation Liaison for the British Galleries

Introduction

The sheer scale of the British Galleries project presented the Conservation Department with unprecedented challenges. As well as practical treatment of objects, conservators undertook a wide range of other related activities. These included assessing object condition, estimating time required for treatment, technical examination, first aid treatments, preparation for photography and final display. Conservators also advised on design, display materials and methods and environmental issues. However, the recurring question was, ‘Will the required conservation be completed in the right sequence and on time?’. It was apparent from the outset that the methods previously employed by the Conservation Department for planning and co-ordinating resources were insufficiently advanced to cope with the volume and diversity of the work required. The system and processes that evolved to address these issues stemmed from a number of factors:

  • availability of appropriate hardware and software
  • conservators need to be able to operate the system with ease
  • existing systems used by the Museum to track and record objects
  • changing requirements and expectations of the system from both internal and external parties
  • use of the information gathered and plans for development of the system after the British Galleries project.

Initial assessment

To gain a clear picture at the start of the project of the extent of the Conservation Department’s involvement, a condition assessment of objects in the former British Art and Design Galleries was undertaken. This information formed an important element of the Museum’s funding bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) as well as the backbone for the planning system.

 The assessment determined:

  •  overall condition of the objects selected for British Galleries
  • estimated time required for practical conservation of individual objects
  • estimated input to prepare objects for movement from the old galleries to stores
  • any special packing requirements
  • environmental susceptibilities and requirements for vulnerable objects
  • objects requiring technical analysis
  • objects requiring treatment prior to photography for the flagship British Galleries publication
  • the feasibility of working on objects in offsite stores.

The development of Concise

Initially, a local database was used for gathering information using standard survey methodology. Basic descriptive information on objects was imported from the Museum’s Collections Information System (CIS), then conservation-specific information was added. The resulting conservation database (Concise) was designed to allow sharing of information between departments. However, each department used this information in a different way. Whereas Conservation required information on every object and part of object, the project team was interested in the larger picture. For example, a reconstructed period room may consist of hundreds of parts, but for installation purposes the project team would consider it as one item.

In the course of development, Concise underwent a gradual systems evolution, originally a FileMaker database, later in MS Access, and finally into Oracle. The metamorphosis was not without problems and involved considerable time expenditure to resolve data inconsistencies. The result is a database that not only ‘speaks’ to other systems in the Museum but also is able to generate information for analysing and tracking progress. Once the issues of levels of recording and consistency of Museum numbering had been resolved, Concise was linked to the British Galleries own database and made available Museum-wide on a ‘read only’ basis.

Concise was structured in various ‘layers’ including:

  • assessments – describe the original condition and estimates for treatments
  • requisitions – a ‘contract’ between the Collections Department and the Conservation Department
  •  proposals – outline the proposed treatment
  • treatments – document methods and materials
  • technical notes – note discoveries of a technical nature potentially of interest to Museum visitors for inclusion in the on-line gallery database.

Concise also allowed several other important functions: printing forms, filtering information, generating lists and reports. HLF required monthly reports on the progress of conservation as a condition of the funding award. Information was presented in a format that clearly demonstrated the amount of progress made each month and the time required to ensure satisfactory completion of all objects on time.

Calculating resource

There were a number of ‘knowns’ that could be used to calculate the amount of conservation resource available:

  • estimated hours required: total hours recorded in the assessments on Concise
  • the number of full-time staff available: part-time staff were recorded as a fraction of a full-time post
  • practical conservation capacity of the Department: the proportion of time conservators can spend on practical conservation without compromising other activities (the capacity) is just over 60%.

The following formula was applied:

Hours available = Number of full-time staff x Annual working hours (1,672) x Capacity

This formula was first applied in October 1999 and the results were:

Total hours required to complete all conservation = 82,368

Total hours available = 52,522

Deficit = 29,846

By relating the deficit to staffing levels, a good case was submitted for making part-time staff full-time, taking on extra contract staff or contracting out certain projects. An additional £350,000 was allocated to the Conservation Department as a result of this exercise.

In a project of this duration and size, there are factors that cannot be anticipated at the outset. These include changes to the list of selected objects, accuracy of estimates, demands from elsewhere, staffing levels, available funds for additional assistance and external constraints. Consequently, a margin of error was applied to calculations and resultant plans.

Lessons learned

Throughout the project the nature of the information needed has changed, reflecting different stages of the work. While in the earlier phases of the project it was important to track progress on a general level, by the final few months detailed information on specific groups, or even individual objects, came to the forefront and had an increasing impact on planning. Secondly it is important not to underestimate the value of the experienced conservator’s judgement in this process. Systems are only as good as the information entered onto them and a balance has to be struck between the need for accurate electronic information and ensuring that conservators maximise their time spent conserving and advising on objects.

Way forward

Concise has been thoroughly tried and tested over a period of two years. Its value as a basic data-capturing tool for documentation and day-to-day recording of information been demonstrated and it has proved its worth as a reliable, robust management tool. The life of the database will be extended well beyond the British Galleries project and it can be further refined and built upon. The possibility of adding images of work-in-progress and the ability to send individual records and images electronically will be built into a revised system. The information on processes, treatments and time taken will enable the Museum to plan future projects more accurately. Finally, by liaising with other departments within the Museum over the development of the system, Concise has been integrated with other Museum-wide applications, making it a valuable tool for the Museum at large as well as Conservation. The future is exciting for Concise.