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Sandra Smith
Head of Conservation

Sandra Smith, Head of Conservation

Sandra Smith, Head of Conservation

I have now been in the post of Head of Conservation for seven months and I am just beginning to feel a sense of familiarity with the Conservation Department, its staff, and its belief systems.

Having worked in a national museum, I could relate to the wide, and often conflicting, demands on conservation time and understood the deep professional knowledge of conservation staff. But I quickly realised that the roles and relationships between conservation and the other Museum departments and the RCA/V&A course give the V&A Conservation Department a unique identity. I also realised that the V&A is undergoing radical and rapid change. An ambitious future plan for the South Kensington site, and comparable plans for the Theatre Museum and Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood will significantly increase physical and intellectual access to the collections over the next seven to ten years. The development of the online museum will increase virtual access to the collections.

The Department has an important role to play in this change. Conservation can inform museum policies and strategies by addressing the conflict between access and preservation. The articles by Boris Pretzel and Jonathan Ashley-Smith discuss some of the issues that will influence future directions. The ‘Understanding Conservation’ course, reviewed in this Journal, highlights public interest in preservation issues and we should be looking for opportunities to involve them with this debate. Developing stronger links with the Learning and Interpretation Division, Visitor Services, and increasing the conservation content of the web site are all opportunities to make this link.

Meeting the changes within the Museum also involves exploring activities within the Collections Services Division and within the Conservation Department. The Strand Palace is one example where combining the skills of conservation and technical services has enabled a complex project to be delivered. In the process new relationships were formed and plans to share communal working facilities are now been developed. The Collections Services Division, including the Conservation Department, is undergoing a strategic review to determine the needs of the Museum for our services over the next five years or so. During this we are hoping to streamline and simplify processes and create more effective ways of working and communicating.

With a background predominantly in archaeological and historical collections, I find the articles on synthetic materials, gloss paint and polyester stimulating and also a little daunting. Archaeological and historical objects are formed from natural products, albeit modified by man. Those which survive, are either inherently stable or have been preserved by uniquely benign environments and offer a wealth of information on natural ageing. Traditional, craft based techniques have evolved to preserve and restore them which in turn became the spring board from which ‘conservation’ developed.

Modern synthetic materials have no such history and folk knowledge behind them. In this throwaway society, where we are encouraged to have the newest and latest it will be the conservators who take the leading role in developing preservation systems. With such rapid developments in smart and techno fabrics alone it is sobering to contemplate how we can keep up!

Finally, to end on a personal note, I have really enjoyed these first few months at the V&A. I am continually delighted by the enthusiasm, commitment and professionalism of the staff. I have been made very welcome and look forward to working with them all in the future.