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RCA/V&A Conservation: In-post MA for conservation professionals

Alison Richmond
Deputy Head, RCA/V&A Conservation

Harriet Standeven
Tutor, RCA/V&A Conservation

In 2004 RCA/V&A Conservation offered, for the first time, a Masters level 'In-Post' studentship. This meant that practising conservators in the London area could now participate in postgraduate education and training, whilst studying within their own employment position on a full- or part-time basis. This new approach would give conservation professionals an alternative route by which they could access an academic framework, develop skills and knowledge, and advance their practice without having to leave paid employment.

We planned to structure this on our existing model of learning within the professional environment: an integrated programme of academic and practical work, supervised by a senior conservator in the student's chosen discipline. This was to be no quick and easy path to an MA. In-Post students would be expected to participate in all aspects of the Department's MA programme. We thought this would be fairly straightforward: the line manager, or another member of staff, would act as the specialist supervisor within the student's discipline; the practical work that the conservator would do for their employer would be assessed and examined in the same way as the work of other MA students; the conservator would be given time by the employer to attend the two-day-a-week taught programme; assignments would be carried out in personal study time. In this way, monitoring and assessments would be the same for all students.

Figure 1. The Berkswell 'Cello Project, centred around a rediscovered 18th century instrument, offers many ethical, scientific, contextual and practical challenges for stringed-instrument conservator Chris Egerton (Photography by Karen Lacroix 2007)

Figure 1. The Berkswell 'Cello Project, centred around a rediscovered 18th century instrument, offers many ethical, scientific, contextual and practical challenges for stringed-instrument conservator Chris Egerton (Photography by Karen Lacroix 2007) (click image for larger version)

We were not reckoning on what actually happened. For one reason or another - institutions could not give their staff time to study in this way; personal situations would not accommodate the time commitment to the course that was expected - no institutional conservators were able to come onto the course. Unexpectedly, however, there were a number of expressions of interest from the private sector.  Indeed, both of our current In-Post students work in private businesses.

Our two current In-Post students are part-time and will complete the MA course over three years rather than two. As a rough guide, we expect part-time students to attend the taught programme one day per week, and dedicate one to one-and-a-half days of their practical work to the programme. The student is allocated a mentor or advisor, who is an expert in the student's discipline.  Their role is to assess practical work and advise on projects. The mentor may change during the course of the studentship, depending on the student's needs.

As In-Post students come to us with a range of established skills and experience in conservation, the key to a successful studentship is identifying and focussing on areas that require development. This is done in consultation with the mentor and personal tutor, and the programme is thus tailored to each student's specific needs. For example, although the practical skills of the In-Post MA students tend to be well-developed, they may not have experience of reflecting critically on what they do. We have also noticed that students tend to take for granted what they do in their own practice; such a student will be encouraged to use the opportunities to reflect on what he or she already does in relation to the assessment criteria. Students will also be supported to develop less familiar aspects, such as documentation, research and analysis. Having access to projects of sufficient complexity to ensure this development takes place is one of the big challenges of the In-Post programme.

Placements are another opportunity that will allow students to experience the unfamiliar, including conservation in a museum environment and a wider range of materials than they normally encounter in their day-to-day work. For example, becoming familiar with standards for museum documentation can help a student think differently about what they already do. The way objects are used in a different context will stimulate reflection on conservation approaches. Sometimes, assignments or practical projects will reveal gaps in knowledge or understanding that can then be addressed. 

Figure 2. Lucy McLean, In-Post MA in Post-19th-Century Bronze Conservation, burnishing the protective wax coating on the bas reliefs on Nelson's Column, Trafalgar Square, London (Photography by Ian McLean)

Figure 2. Lucy McLean, In-Post MA in Post-19th-Century Bronze Conservation, burnishing the protective wax coating on the bas reliefs on Nelson's Column, Trafalgar Square, London (Photography by Ian McLean) (click image for larger version)

 The benefits to both the programme and the student are numerous: the student gains access to a range of facilities and expertise that they would otherwise not have. To date, successful collaborations of this nature include work placements in museum conservation departments, and collaborative projects with other students in the Royal College of Art. The benefits to the programme are also substantial: enriching learning of all students and staff. In-Post students bring a completely different perspective to the course - that of the working professional in the private sector. Our In-Post students have long experience working in their disciplines and are willing to share their knowledge and skills with their fellow students and staff on the course.

The future of conservation education and training appears to lie in an expanding interface between public and private conservation: private companies working in public institutions, public institutions managing projects carried out by private companies and so on. By running an In-Post MA that is accessible to conservators working in the private sector we are enhancing their ability to adapt to this environment.

Designing and managing this new kind of studentship has given staff the opportunity to develop too. We have had to think even more carefully about what we do and how we do it, so that we can adapt it in the most efficient and effective way for In-Post students. Both the learning experience and assessment need careful management to ensure that there is comparability between In-Post students and those on the regular course. This is time consuming but very rewarding when you see the students benefiting.

As is the case with all our studentships, we cannot offer exactly the same experience to every student, but we aim to provide an equivalent experience. We provide a kind of learning that fits in with the needs of practising conservators. Nothing is ideal of course and there are always many glitches that need to be addressed throughout any studentship. We look forward to the graduation of our first In-Post students and to reflecting on what we can do better next time.

If you have an interest in finding out more about in-post education and training please contact Joanna Baden-Morgan, email conservation@rca.ac.uk.