Autumn 2002 Issue 42
The articles forming this edition of the Journal arrived on my desk at the same time as a large number of applications for the post of Head of Conservation, a post that for close to twenty five years was filled by Jonathan Ashley Smith. During this time, through education, training and research, Jonathan has made a uniquely important and valuable contribution, giving conservators a consistent, rational and scientific basis from which to work. He has played a pivotal role in raising the professional standing of Conservation, both by his work inside the Department, and by his work with what are now recognised as the professional bodies of conservation. It is to Jonathan that we owe both the RCA/V&A Conservation Programme and this Journal. Jonathan has accumulated a vast amount of knowledge and experience in science and conservation and has published very extensively. Since the publication of his book Risk Assessment for Object Conservation he has had many requests, from within the UK and from overseas, to supervise the work of research students, and he is increasingly in demand as a consultant and teacher generally.
Jonathan’s prediction in Issue 39 of this Journal, that the Department would probably never be the same again after the British Galleries project, has turned out to be more prophetic than perhaps even he realised. The successful delivery of the British Galleries project, in which the Conservation Department played a key part, has changed the way the Museum is perceived both from within and from outside. It has increased our confidence and is reshaping our ambitions to make objects and information about objects available to our audiences in new and exciting ways. Over the next four years, and beyond, the Museum will need a continued high level of delivery from the Conservation Department for projects within the Future Plan and for an expanded programme of exhibitions, loans, publications, web projects and small displays. At the same time the Collections Services Division will be reshaping to provide a more joined-up and proactive service to the Museum. While it appears that there are other potential leaders with proven track records to take us through this period, the pressures of reorganisation and project delivery would undoubtedly curtail those activities where Jonathan’s skills are greatest.
Earlier this year, Jonathan submitted a proposal to give up his post as Head of Conservation and, with effect from August 2002, to become a senior member of the Research Department. For the next four years, until his due retirement date, he will teach, supervise research, publish, and seek partners and funding to create a centre of excellence. This last will concentrate on those research areas in which he and the RCA/V&A Conservation programme are at the forefront.
The RCA/ V&A Conservation programme of postgraduate vocational training (MA) and research (MPhil and PhD) provided jointly by the RCA Conservation Department and the Conservation Department of the V&A, gives novel and unparalleled opportunities for learning. The course, in association with Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine (ICSTM) and a host of collaborating museums and organisations, aligns with V&A and DCMS objectives and is very important to the museum community at large. In particular, it is through the course that skills shortages in the profession, for example in upholstery and stained glass, have been identified and addressed. In 2001 the excellence and innovation of the Course were recognised by the award to the RCA of the Queen’s Award for Higher and Further Education. The course has just successfully completed an independent validation process. One of the strengths of the course is that it is able to address both mainstream and niche areas of conservation.Through an interdisciplinary approach of art and science, theory and practice, it is able to produce students of a very high calibre. Many of them are able in due course to become world leaders in their area of expertise. All of them are capable of continuous learning and professional development. In this issue we celebrate the achievements of four new MAs and two PhDs and welcome a new intake of students. Our thanks must go to all those who contribute to the success of the course but we must thank especially Helen Jones, Deputy Course Leader, who has now taken on the very different but equally demanding planning role for the Museum.
The theme of this issue is broadly that of finding out about objects. The course and the partnerships that have arisen or,more correctly, been developed by those involved in the participating institutions, have provided many fruitful collaborations. One example is the work on glass disease which has been the subject of collaboration with ICSTM since the early 1990’s, intended to increase our ability to understand and prevent deterioration. Continued studies in the deterioration of glass are reported in this issue. Elsewhere, Alexandra Kosinova describes an example of the use of a rarely documented pigment, and Nanke Schellmann records the discovery of a previously unknown inscription on the Queen Elizabeth Virginals discovered during its conservation. Multiple strands of evidence point to the same conclusion (ie that the inscription dates from the time of manufacture). The scientific approach to conservation that Jonathan fostered over a generation is reflected in the examples of the use of techniques of examination and analysis described here. The importance of good record keeping also emerges at least implicitly in these articles. Comparing the real evidence of what is actually found on objects enables comparisons and correlation with evidence from manuals and treatises to be made. Investigation of a travelling altar also provides good illustration of what can be deduced by careful use of appropriate techniques of examination and analysis.
Understanding and finding out about objects goes right to the heart of what conservation is about. The conservator who understands what the object is about is more readily able to make more responsive, sensitive, intelligent, ethical and cost-effective treatments than one who merely knows about conservation. Understanding objects also enables value to be added to our displays and the ways that we inform and entertain our customers. It is important that we do not just accumulate stores of knowledge for ourselves and other conservators but that we actively identify opportunities to use this understanding directly to engage audiences in support of the aims of the institution as a whole. Much attention has been focussed on the strategic importance to an organisation of its knowledge portfolio.What is it that we know or are able to do that will add value to what we have to offer to our customers? That knowledge is increasingly a vitally important intangible asset that needs to be managed to deliver added value for the community as a whole. Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi in their book The Knowledge Creating Company, propose a model to represent how explicit knowledge (that which can easily be written down) and tacit knowledge (skills, experience, insights, judgements and know-how) interact through four conversion processes or patterns to create knowledge in an organisation. Taken together the course and the Journal serve well to illustrate these processes. The transfer of tacit knowledge from one person to another occurs in on-the-job training. Tacit knowledge is made explicit through tutorials, seminars and other person to person and group dialogue. Both explicit and tacit knowledge are also made explicit through the pages of this Journal. New knowledge and understanding occur when explicit knowledge is applied in new ways to unique situations to form new tacit knowledge.
The key question to ask is,“How can we use this knowledge to the best advantage for our customers?”