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Editorial Comment - Conservation Journal 57

Sandra Smith
Head of Conservation


Sandra Smith

The publication of the Demos pamphlet 'It's a Material World: Caring for the public realm'1 in November 2008 articulated the need for conservators to become more politically aware if we are to maintain skills for the future. The document has laid the ground for this to happen, emphasising that conservation plays an essential role in social identity, social well-being and the care of the material world. Reinterpreting our daily work in this context requires us to think beyond its (immense) value in preserving and interpreting the nation's heritage, whilst translating its outcomes as opportunities for social innovation.

Every time conservators and scientists engage with an object or engage with the public, they have the potential to change thoughts and perceptions. From the complex (Melchar and Bamforth, Turnbull), to the grotesque (Sofer), from the eccentric (Rutherston) to the obscure (Marsh, Haldane et al) all our collections contain fascinating and enthralling stories. The Berkswell 'Cello (Egerton) is a classic example of how conservation can 'unlock' an object, creating links between the past and the present. Whilst the challenges of preserving theatre collections which were not designed to last longer than the performances in which they featured (Huxtable, Pendlebury) resonate with many of the issues that society faces today.

Through the continued improvement to display methods (Gatley), and practical treatment (Melchar and Bamforth), Conservation has helped to deliver 14 exhibitions, 24 displays, 10 FuturePlan projects (Oakley and Jordan), 9 Museum of Childhood events, as well as loans (Nodding and Oakley), and publications in 2008, many of which have received very positive reviews. Of the 6,000 or so objects conserved this year, some will have altered people's lives.

Most museums recognise the unique value of conservation and the potential for positive press as collections are prepared for galleries and displays, but conservators also need to recognise that their skills enable the institutions to meet more diverse government agendas; with 22 International and 21 UK touring exhibitions this year, safeguarding collections continues to be a focus of our research and development (Kelly). Venues now extend beyond Europe, America and Australia to the Near East and to the Indian Subcontinent. The concept of 'controlling the environment' takes on much larger connotations than simply that of light, temperature and humidity as events in Mumbai vividly highlighted to us in November whilst Indian Life and Landscapes (Wheeler) was being installed. The returns can be immense; In his Guardian article Simon Jenkins2 praised the V&A's World Ceramics: Masterpieces from the V&A exhibition as being the first star-quality loan exhibition ever seen in Syria, recognising that 'Here is Britain taking Syria and Syrians seriously and at face value', dealing with them 'culture to culture' whereby the importance and value of 'soft' cultural diplomacy is increasingly recognised.

Everyone in conservation and conservation science needs to engage with the issues raised by Demos and to recognise and find the opportunities to highlight the value of their work within the widest contexts. My thanks go to all the staff in the V&A Conservation Department for their professionalism and hard work, without their positive 'can do' approach the Museum could not have achieved such success this year.


1. Jones, S., Holden, J., It's a Material World: Caring for the public realm (Demos, 2008)
2. Jenkins, S. 'This show's diplomacy is for real - and it's worth a hundred Milibands', The Guardian, Friday 28 November 2008
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/ nov/28/comment-v-a-exhibition-syria-miliband (accessed December 2008)