Summer 2005 Issue 50
The hand that rocks the cradle: Conservation administration, present and future
The Administration Section of the Conservation Department consists of three members of staff. The support functions of the section are distributed evenly, but each member has a specialism: Tim develops and manages the information systems in the Department, Laura administers the Department's finance, maintenance and health and safety procedures and Michelle concentrates on the students, interns and the production of the Conservation Journal. The section currently supports 47 conservators and scientists, 19 students and anything up to 4 interns at any time. In the six years that Tim Carpenter has been Head of Section, the basic remit of the section has been the same i.e. to support the activities of the Conservation Department, namely:
- practical conservation
- research and development
- education and training
In this article we will illustrate:
- the core functions and responsibilities of the section
- the changes in roles and responsibilities in response to the ever-changing needs of the Conservation Department
- how the section is evolving in order to maintain an effective level of service for the Department and the Museum as a whole.
There has been an increasing need within the Department to be able to plan and predict resource needs in both money and conservators' time. Admin maintain the conservation database CONCISE and have created the Estimator (See "Planning and Estimating " V&A Conservation Journal No. 48, 2004). These systems have proved invaluable in ensuring that the needs of the Museum are met and projects can be delivered on time and within budget. Admin also support the Department's ad hoc IT needs, by purchasing digital media and providing training and support in related applications. The Department's Internet and Intranet systems also support internal and external communications. Admin support the activities of the RCA/V&A Conservation Course and administer the Department's programme of internships. Duties include organising interviews and colour vision testing, organising security arrangements and work permits. However, the majority of the work is carried out once the student or intern has started, ensuring that lectures are organised, inductions are carried out and general administrative support is available.
Four categories were identified during a recent review of the activities of the section that cover the variety of the work carried out. They were:
Non time-based activities: these are tasks that cannot be anticipated, except for the fact that we know they might occur in the course of any working day. These include telephone enquiries from the public, e-mails, questions about finance or budgets and assistance with computer applications. It was calculated from timesheets that 30% of our time was spent on these tasks.
Time-based activities: these activities have to be carried out at a specific time and can be planned in advance. Tasks include organising lectures, attending meetings and finance audits and dealing with student or intern administration (33% of time).
Regular projects: these are tasks that take up a significant amount of time, they are open-ended projects in the sense that they will never be completed, but they require regular input to ensure relevance. Tasks include administering the Conservation Library, producing the Conservation Journal, updating the Intranet site and maintaining the Department's Health & Safety database (25% of time).
Development: these are projects that have a specific remit and time-scale. Tasks include developing new library and finance databases, a training needs analysis on CONCISE and continued personal development (12% of time).
It became apparent that the balance of time allocation needed to be addressed to ensure that development became a more prominent activity in the section. A lot of time spent on non time-based activities could be seen as non-profitable time and we explored ways of modifying working patterns so that this time is rationalised and spent on development. Simple measures were put in place, such as moving staff into the same office to improve internal communications, having a group telephone pick-up system and having set times in the week to deal with tasks that can be planned such as auditing, ordering and dealing with external enquiries. Certain days in the week or month were also set aside for the Conservation Library, finance reconciling and Intranet development.
On first impression, it would appear that the roles and responsibilities of the section have continued along the same lines for six years. However, a number of both internal and external factors have made it essential that tasks and emphasis in Admin change. Probably the most significant factor that has prompted this change has been the ever-increasing dependence of the Department on information technology. The average conservator spends around twice the time using PCs and digital media than they did six years ago. Around 40% of a conservator's time can be accounted for as spent on activities such as data entry and producing, storing and printing digital images. The benefits, with regards to the accessibility of data, quality of condition reports and ability to communicate both internally and externally, are very noticeable. However, servicing these needs with regards to IT support, maintenance and training has taken a lot of time away from Admin's traditional role of dealing with paper-based tasks. Most conservators type their own letters and so the need for touch typists has given way to requiring flexible IT literate staff. There have also been changes to the basic tools of the trade in Admin: Rolodex's have given way to electronic address databases, printed memos once placed on notice boards are now converted to pdf files before being e-mailed and minutes of meetings are now placed on the Intranet. New legislation such as the management of hazardous substances and the Freedom of Information Act has also put Admin in the forefront of ensuring that the Department is reactive and compliant.
In short, the need for specialists in the section has given way to a requirement for proactive, IT literate multi tasking and flexible staff. This has made the job more diverse and rewarding but also highlighted how important it is to plan and prioritise tasks.
Conservation Administration is unique in the Museum, as it is the only section that exists specifically to support the activities of a professional body of people within its department. It is important that members of the section can communicate effectively and understand the needs and requirements of the conservators. Core skills training for Admin staff can be addressed by means of tapping into the excellent array of training courses available in the Museum. Courses include training in the various applications used in the Museum and also personal skills training, such as time management, minute taking and managing change.
So, what does the future hold for Conservation Administration? Firstly, there has to be an acceptance that there will never be enough time or resources to be able to achieve everything that is desired. Secondly, that emphasis will continue to change as a response to internal and external requirements. Finally, staff turnover within the section is inevitable. These three factors not only mean that the section must continue to move and improve, but they also highlight the importance of developing the section around systems and procedures as well as the skills of current staff. Having robust systems and procedures also allows the section to expand and contract according to the tasks assigned to it.
Developing transparent systems of administration allows the rest of the Department an opportunity to see how we operate, contribute to improvements and above all empathise with the work of the section. The ideal situation would be that Admin are able to anticipate the needs of conservators and plan accordingly, the reality is building on a culture where the section can at least respond to needs as quickly and effectively as possible.
It is difficult to pin down exactly what motivates the Conservation Administration Section. But, although we have little or no direct contact with objects and we are not at the forefront of new research or awarded for our work as so many of our colleagues are, everything that the Department does and therefore achieves has an Admin contribution. Working in Admin gives us an invaluable insight into the workings of one of the best conservation departments in any museum in the world so there is little wonder that our predecessors have gone on to bigger and better things. As the saying goes, 'The hand that rocks the cradle...'