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The importance of being less earnest: Communicating conservation

Helen Jones
Deputy Head, RCA/V&A Conservation

'…there is a failure on the part of conservators to make their profession sexy enough!'

Figure 1. Panel from an RCA/V&A Conservation display that emphasised explaining conservation to visitors. Photography by the author.

Figure 1. Panel from an RCA/V&A Conservation display that emphasised explaining conservation to visitors. Photography by the author (click image for larger version)

So says Tim Schadla Hall, Reader in Public Archaeology at University College London. In an address to conservators, published in Museum Archaeology News (No. 33, Autumn/Winter 2001), he demonstrates 'the relatively low esteem in which conservation is held'. He suggests that this is due at least in part to conservators’ anxiety to convey their professionalism and protect their exclusive knowledge at the expense of being interesting and at the risk of being sidelined. We need to loosen up a bit and open up a lot; to be much less earnest in our interactions with our colleagues and with the public.

 It is not novel to point out that conservators need to be able to communicate well about their profession if they are to secure resources and achieve their objectives of stable, accessible collections. The importance of good communication, especially with the public, is acknowledged in several recent initiatives and publications; e.g. the Museums & Galleries Commission’s resource pack Ours for Keeps? (1997), the criteria for the Conservation Awards and IIC’s Keck Award. Elizabeth Pye included a whole chapter on ‘Communicating Conservation’ in her recent book Caring for the Past (2001, James & James), in which she clearly makes the case for improving our skills in this area and Simon Cane considered the issue in a recent article for Conservation News (Issue 78, May 2002).

So why write about it again? Well, because it seems to me that many conservators are not really convinced either that it is worth doing or that they have anything to say. In particular, this article was prompted by recent remarks made by Conservation colleagues. The first occurred in a discussion about the Conservation Department’s contribution to setting and achieving performance measures for the Museum. It was pointed out that only one performance measure related to conservation – the one describing the proportion of the collections housed in adequate environmental conditions. The second example arose while talking about the Conservation Department’s participation in public events and outreach activities; someone said 'Shouldn’t we just get on with conserving the objects?' I understand the latter viewpoint since there is an increasing amount and variety of things that conservators have to do. Although most of us entered the conservation profession because we enjoyed working with objects, it always seems to be treatment of objects that is sacrificed.

However, it is clear that conservation today is about much more than ‘just’ treating the objects, and even more than treating the objects plus controlling the climate. Conservators have to develop professional and political skills, not for their own aggrandisement but in order to do their jobs properly. The current preoccupations in museums, led by the Government Department for Culture, Media & Sport, are access, learning and social inclusion. All of these tend to add weight to the access side of the care/access scales, whereas Conservation is usually seen as on the care  side and, therefore, in opposition to access. This is not necessarily correct since most of the V&A Conservation Department’s work is about enabling  access through exhibition and loans, but it is an entrenched view. If we identify ourselves solely with treatment and protection of objects, we are in danger of portraying ourselves as technicians, undermining our carefully cultivated professional status, and as obstructions to progress. Thus we could cut ourselves off from the influence and consequent resources that will enhance the conservation process.

The comments described above jarred because they go against prevailing professional trends. In the case of the performance measures, there are many areas other than environmental control in which we can claim a contribution, not least in the levels of visitor satisfaction. Access to objects is not only made possible, but significantly enhanced by conservation; even a rapid tour of the V&A’s British Galleries demonstrates that the objects look fantastic and that information obtained through conservation educates and entertains the visitors. Through the RCA/V&A Conservation programme of postgraduate training and research, as well as through numerous internships, exchanges and work placements, we contribute directly to the Museum’s objectives on learning and also to working with the regions. If we are slow to claim these things for ourselves, it is not surprising that they are not recognised by others, and then we feel taken for granted. Communication requires effort and it is up to us to make the running and not wait to be asked.

 V&A conservators and scientists already help the Museum to fulfil its remit to provide an excellent public service, through its core conservation role and also by providing successful lectures, visits and demonstrations for a range of audiences. Public events, though, tend to occur on an ad hoc, reactive basis and to be fitted in as a necessary but sometimes uncongenial duty. Even when there is enthusiasm, it is hard to find the time. An analysis by the author in 2000 of the V&A Conservation Department’s communication activities concluded that we are very good indeed at talking to other conservation professionals, but less so with the wider world, including Museum colleagues and Trustees as well as visitors. Yet it also noted that we could have most to gain by focusing on the visitor because this would also attract kudos within the Museum. It follows that we could do even better by appealing to people who are currently non-visitors, though this is more difficult to do.

Kudos is hollow, though, if it is not translated into power. Perhaps power is an unpalatable word to the stereotypical conservator, or any person of liberal persuasion, but effectiveness demands it. In the past, conservators have tried to base their power on control: on claiming an unassailable right of veto. Our specialist expertise is a good basis for power, but if it is wielded too defensively, too often or without justification, it is ultimately self-defeating: very often, the objects won’t fall apart – not immediately, anyway – and, like the boy who cried wolf, we may be ignored. If the objects are damaged, we will not only have been ignored – we will have failed. More effective power can be earned through adding to the institution’s success, and being seen to do so. By sharing our expert knowledge, opinion and skills more widely, our power is founded on consensus achieved through mutual understanding, respect and confidence, not blind obedience (which we never had anyway).

It can only be to our advantage to seek further opportunities to engage directly with the public and to incorporate this into our strategic planning, supported by management practices and resources. This means training in relevant skills, setting aside time to plan and execute activities and recognising achievements. It is easier to say than do, especially when the Museum has such a busy programme, but we are making progress, e.g. by generating stories for the V&A website and making sure the Learning & Visitor Services Department know how we can contribute to public programmes in varied ways.

Getting more involved with the public need not be an exercise in cynical pragmatism nor mere bandwagon-jumping, though. There are at least two further reasons why we should embrace outreach activities.

Figure 2

Figure 2. A conservation ’Short Story’ by Jane Rutherston on the V&A website describing the preservation problems of a latex breast on a surrealist book cover. Photography by the author (click image for larger version)

The first is that we can learn a lot ourselves. Another recent trend in conservation research, including in RCA/V&A Conservation, is consideration of the fundamental purpose of conservation and its role in society. Our concepts of what constitutes an object’s significance and by whom it is conferred are expanding. It is more explicitly acknowledged that objects embody multifarious values and that conservation decisions are subjective. The public constitute major stakeholders and it is common to invoke ‘what the public wants’.

However, there is no single public, but a rich variety of people with diverse opinions and needs. Research into what they actually do want is limited. We could do more to find out what it is the public like (or don’t!), how our decisions affect them and how they can contribute to the process. If they do not want what we are offering, we cannot simply set out to change their minds but should re-examine what we do. Conservators, myself included, feel compelled to proselytise; to explain and justify conservation and convert others to our cause (figure 1). There is a place for this, but we could concentrate more on demonstrating what conservation adds to the understanding and enjoyment of objects, and on communicating the excitement and pleasure we ourselves often feel.

 Experience and anecdote at the V&A strongly suggest that our visitors do indeed enjoy engaging with conservation. This is borne out by Krysta Brooks’s research for her BA dissertation, Do Not Touch (City & Guilds of London Art School, 2000). To build on this, we can learn from other professionals in the communication sphere (e.g. education, design, marketing) in order to get our message across in stimulating and effective ways while being open to debate and differing opinions. Conservation generated material should be integrated throughout the Museum’s public activities so that the message, while more subtle, is put before audiences who may not visit the display or web-page with a ‘Conservation’ headline. An example is a recent display mounted by conservators at the V&A about the discovery of sacred objects inside a Buddha sculpture, which focused on the object, but addressed conservation decision-making.

The second reason is very compelling but is frequently too low on conservators’ agendas: we could enjoy ourselves!