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Jonathan Ashley-Smith
Head of Conservation

Project management is so much a part of life these days that it is hard to believe that conservation in a major national museum has not always been planned as a continuing series of projects. The idea of assessing the necessary resources, and then working with a team drawing expertise from different sections of the Museum to reach an agreed goal by an agreed deadline, did not occur until the early 1980s. By the mid-1990s, the Department was so used to working this way that I boldly announced to my senior management colleagues that the British Galleries project induced no worries – it was after all merely a bit bigger than anything we had tackled before.

The British Galleries has been the biggest project that the V&A has tackled for fifty years. It is the sort of major endeavour that encourages record statistics, numbers of years of planning, thousands of object moves, tens of thousands of conservator hours. Its very size and complexity meant that it was, in the event, like nothing the Department had experienced before. This probably means that the Department will never be the same again.

Fortunately, the necessary basic skills of estimating and planning were there. The Department’s competence at estimating the necessary resources was checked on two occasions. The first estimate of conservator-hours needed was compared, object-type by object-type, with historic records of how long similar tasks had actually taken. At the end of the project, the number of hours spent was compared to the estimate. Both tests showed that the Department’s estimating skills are extremely good.

The British Galleries project also showed that a conservation department is a good training ground for project managers. The Head of Major Projects, Gwyn Miles, started at the V&A as the Deputy Keeper of Conservation. Nick Umney, at one stage Head of the Organics Group in the Department, was seconded to organise the object and people-related parts of the project. His years of experience in conservation, added to these last three years of looking at us as a service provider from the other side of the transaction, were probably key in ensuring his recent selection as Director of Collections Services.

This issue of the Journal is a celebration, both of the completion of a major museum project, and of the Department’s contribution to it. Contained within are some highlights of the immense range of conservation and scientific activity undertaken over the last five years.