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Understanding conservation: An evening course at the V&A, 29 January – 26 February 2003

Ann Dooley
Courses Organiser, Learning and Interpretation

Victoria Oakley
Head of Ceramics and Glass Conservation

Alison Richmond
Senior Tutor RCA/V&A Conservation

The work of the Conservation Department is generally a mystery to most people who visit the V&A. Almost all the work that conservators do, which is ultimately for the benefit of the visitor, goes unnoticed. The course, which was developed as a collaboration between the Conservation Department and Learning and Interpretation, was a rare chance for conservators to describe their work to a nonspecialist audience. The aim was to provide independent adult learners with an opportunity to find out what happens to objects behind the scenes and consider the importance of conservation.

The course was spread over five Wednesday evenings. Each two hour session followed a theme, gradually building to give a broad picture of the range of different aspects covered by conservation. The question 'What is conservation?' was asked on the first evening, with deterioration, specialist techniques and preventive care covered in further sessions. The call for speakers was answered with enthusiasm; 16 conservators delivered 17 presentations and others hosted studio visits. Course packs were provided for the 42 participants, containing an abstract and notes for each lecture, a list of unfamiliar words and a reading list. There were four or five presentations on each evening. Although the atmosphere was intended to be informal to encourage questions from the audience, there was a general tendency for speakers to become so absorbed in their subjects that they over-ran into the question time.

The subjects were wide-ranging: from a broad overview of the preparation of objects for an entire exhibition (Art Deco) to the treatment of portrait miniatures on ivory, from the conservation and installation of textiles for the British Galleries to ‘Teddy bears under intensive care’. The deterioration of materials and preventive conservation were covered in a number of talks given by V&A scientists whilst two presentations on risk to collections and ethics introduced the audience to some of the broader issues of conservation.

For many of the participants the highlight of the course was the evening devoted to visits behind the scenes. A tour to the Stained Glass, Textiles, Books and Sculpture Conservation studios allowed participants to talk to conservators and see objects undergoing various stages of treatment.

The feedback from the audience was generally very favourable, with all agreeing that the course was pitched at the right level. Some commented that they would have preferred fewer talks and more opportunities for discussion, while one or two were critical of the style of delivery of some of the presentations. Overall, they said that they had enjoyed the course enormously and found it very  engaging and highly informative. For the conservators, it was an opportunity to demonstrate their professional expertise and to share with members of the public some of the extraordinary things that happen to objects before they are displayed.

If you would like to know about the course in more detail please e-mail a.dooley@vam.co.uk