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Conservation Department away day - December 2003

Alan Derbyshire
Head of Sculpture, Metals, Ceramics & Glass Conservation

Figure 1

Figure 1. Alan Derbyshire with colleagues from conservation department, V&A (click image for larger version)

Following on from the re-structuring of the Conservation Department it was decided to organise an 'away day' at the Institute of Physics, Portland Place, London. This would allow as many people from the Conservation Department as possible to come together and discuss a range of issues.

In keeping with the festive period, people found that they had variously been divided up into tables of elves, snow-people and angels etc. This mix seemed to have been carefully thought out to ensure that, as far as possible, people were sitting with colleagues from different studios.

Ian Blatchford, Director of Finance and Resources, and Nick Umney, Director of the Collections Services Division, had been invited to begin the proceedings by addressing the Conservation Department along with Sandra Smith. Ian Blatchford spoke about the difficult financial position of the V&A and emphasised that the Museum's funding was only just keeping up with inflation. The positive aspects of initiatives such as the partnership with the Millennium Galleries in Sheffield were also discussed. The position of conservation within the Collections Services Division and the benefits of sharing best practice within that wider context were discussed by Nick Umney. Sandra reiterated the reasoning and the perceived advantages behind the re-structuring of the Department.

Each table was then asked to prioritise three or four questions for the speakers. Ian Blatchford, for example, was asked about how Conservation was perceived by other departments at the V&A. Nick and Sandra were asked if the Museum's management board had a clear idea of what conservation do. Other questions related to staffing shortages, how much influence Conservation (and Collection Services Division) have within the Museum, storage, British Galleries and the importance of research. Controversially, Ian Blatchford suggested that conservation is seen as a 'cost' to the museum. Unfortunately this session had to be brought to a close - probably earlier than most people would have wished - because of the tight scheduling of the day.

The next session was devoted to defining and discussing how the Department can achieve best practice in a number of key areas. Members of the Senior Management Team and Tim Carpenter briefly introduced the areas of communication, practical work, research, education/access and administration. Each table then debated each topic and noted their ideas in a workbook under the headings of 'strengths', 'actions to enhance strengths', 'barriers' and 'actions to remove barriers'. The group with which I was working had some very lively and informative debates highlighting the depth of knowledge and experience across the Department.

Lunch was adequate although there was considerable consternation as to whether or not we were eating chicken goujons or fish fingers. The concept that good food encourages good debate often seems forgotten.

The afternoon started with further 'table' discussions. This time the 'hot topics' were Training & Development/CPD, Project Management, Education and Access, Quality & Excellence Standards, Marketing beyond Conservation and Preservation & Collections Care. Each topic had questions attached to help focus the discussion e.g. 'How can we maximise and share our existing knowledge and skills?', 'How can we make conservation work more relevant to others?'. The table groupings this time were arrived at by people choosing which topic they wanted to debate. Again notes were made in the workbooks for collation by Training at a later date.

The Department then debated 'Stakeholders and the Wider Context'. This brought out the many positive aspects of the Conservation Department as it stands. The things we do well and what we have achieved. Probably the most enjoyable part of the day at the Institute of Physics - and not just because it was the final session - was the 'Vision & Creativity' exercise. This involved people back in their original groups making a Dickensian interpretation of the Conservation Department - past, present and future. This resulted in some well crafted images and rhymes highlighting our strengths.

In conclusion I feel it was a day well spent. Inevitably there will always be dissenters who argue that the time could have been spent more profitably at the bench. However, it is good to reflect on who we are and what we do and how we can improve - especially in a democratic forum. It was also good to have a solid excuse to go to the pub afterwards.

Training have collated the results of the day and have presented them to the Department. The proof of the away day's true worth will be in how we - as a department - analyse and act upon what was debated.