Autumn 2003 Issue 45
V&A in the regions: Conservation Summer Schools at the University of Derby
The University of Derby and the V&A Conservation Department have collaborated in organising one-day Conservation Summer Schools at Derby in 2002 and 2003. Together, these events have attracted nearly 70 museum and heritage professionals from the East Midlands and beyond. Evaluation questionnaires indicate that these events are seen as valuable staff development opportunities for a wide range of reasons.
The initial link between the two institutions was formed in 1995 when Graham Martin (Head of Science Section, V&A) agreed to act as an advising practitioner for the development of an undergraduate conservation science programme entitled Heritage Conservation. This programme was validated in 1996 and Graham accepted the role of external examiner. At the end of his term of office in 2001 it was felt that the link between the V&A and Derby should continue, subsequently Graham was appointed Visiting Professor in Conservation Science to the University and collaboration has continued.
One of the most significant developments that has emerged from this relationship has been the Summer School. Increasingly, smaller museums in the regions are finding it difficult to identify affordable development opportunities for their staff. Central government initiatives to establish networks and hubs are in their early stages. The cost of travelling to London alone can significantly impact on meagre budgets.
Our proposal was to site the event nearer to potential attendees, offer free parking, and obtain sponsorship so that the fee for the day would be of the order of £50 including lunch and refreshments. An application to the Royal Society of Chemistry (East Midlands Section) to make available up to £500 to underwrite the event for 2002 and 2003 was successful. The aim was to attract about 30 delegates and this has been achieved in both years. Delegates have come from a wide variety of heritage organisations including the National Trust, local museums and archives. In fact some attendees have been drawn from further afield than first anticipated, including Cardiff and London.
In terms of content of the day, one of objectives was to increase the awareness of developments in National Museums both in terms of policy developments and research. The latter to include a range of relevant areas such as environmental management and control, pest management, materials identification and materials testing. Risk assessment in museums was also recognised as an essential topic that reflects current thinking. Over the two meetings the V&A have enabled conservation staff to present on these topics, notably Sandra Smith, Jonathan Ashley- Smith, Graham Martin, Brenda Keneghan and Boris Pretzel.
Through links with the V&A David Pinniger accepted an invitation to provide a presentation on pest management. Staff from the University of Derby have also given talks on areas including the nature and application of plant-based dyes (Alan Dronsfield), chemical detective work in solving conservation problems, e.g. cadmium corrosion and doll’s disease (Trevor Brown) and the use of scanning electron microscopy coupled with energy dispersive spectoscopy to investigate textiles with metal threads (Graham Souch) and the use Mossbauer spectroscopy to examine the iron pyrite content of PEG conserved – waterlogged wood, a key factor in the generation of destructive sulphuric acid (Jacob Adetunji). At our 2002 meeting Netty Cook (then East Midlands Regional Conservator for the National Trust) gave an overview of the Trust’s priorities for conservation in their properties.
In the 2003 event a number of the regional practitioners were able to present case studies based on their own experiences. Jonathan Wallis (Principal Curator at Derby Museums, who also spoke in 2002) and Roger Sellick (until recently a Heritage Conservation student at the University of Derby and now Keeper of Collections at the Bass Museum of Brewing, Burton on Trent) spoke on the ‘Discovery, Conservation and Display of a Waterlogged Bronze Age Boat’. This presentation illustrated the challenges generated for a regional museum by the discovery of a large object, of national importance with lengthy and highly specialised conservation requirements, within its normal catchment area. A number of generic matters were raised in this presentation that included fund raising, particularly for the conservation work at the York Archaeological Trust and matters relating to the acceptance sponsorship from a commercial company. Also the practical necessity, despite ethical unease, of cutting the boat into metre sections so that it could be transported and treated with PEG in the tanks available at York. Derby Museums were also proactive in arranging iron pyrite analysis at the University on small samples of treated wood, in light of recently published concerns regarding high level of sulphuric acid in the timbers of the warship Wasa. The speakers also outlined the issues of display and environmental sensitivities in the gallery, which is attracting large numbers of visitors.
Louise Hampson (Collections Manager, York Minster) presented a paper on the care of archive collections that focused on her experiences at York Minster. In particular the use of passive environments for the storage of paper and parchment documents. The case study described viable alternatives, in an existing building, to the installation of expensive and space consuming air conditioning plant with the associated risk of breakdown. This included carefully considered insulation to produce a stable environment that only required minimal manual adjustments at exceptional times. The outcome was a less stressful environment for the documents. This study proved to be an elegant example of what can be achieved through careful research and the confidence not to accept the general inertia towards air conditioning.
No two events will be the same. The programmes will be timely and reflect perceived need. This changing content has already seen several repeat attendees.
In addition to the provision of stimulating speakers, a further aim of the Summer School is to enable professionals from the region simply to come together and talk to each other in a spontaneous and relaxed fashion. Refreshment breaks and lunch periods have been characterised by introductions, intense conversation and opportunities taken to share experiences and plan collaborations. In fact responses to questionnaires indicate that this activity is considered a very important aspect of the day
In conclusion we feel that the Conservation Summer Schools at Derby have proved very successful in meeting their aims. Our intention is to repeat the event again next year if sponsorship can be found. The participants in the region have formed a group whose members are at ease with each other and with an interest to be involved in the future planning. In 2004 we are considering group-working situations and practical demonstrations as possible ways of broadening participation.