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An approach to conserving study collections

Alan Derbyshire
Head of Paper, Books and Painting Conservation


Since 2002 the focus of work for both the Victoria and Albert Museum Conservation Department and for the Word and Image Department (WID) has been the delivery of the Public Programme. This very active programme of loans, displays, exhibitions (both at South Kensington and travelling) and FuturePlan projects consumes most of Conservation’s resources. Of course the initial stages of most Public Programme work involve conservation assessments and or treatment and therefore Conservation continues to impact on the V&A’s commitment to improving the state of our collections. However, it can be difficult for areas of the collection not on the Public Programme radar to be picked up and for resources to be made available for their conservation.

It was decided that the Paper, Books and Painting (PBP) Conservation Section would work together with WID in order to formulate a strategy that would help address this issue. In 2009 it was concluded that there would be a natural gap in Future Plan activity for PBP Section. It was therefore decided that it would be possible to ring-fence a limited and agreed amount of resources to help deal with WID’s core collection, conservation backlog. For some time WID had been producing an annual list of backlog conservation projects that Conservation acknowledged but rarely found resources to deal with. WID’s senior curators were tasked with creating a priority list of these conservation projects. This resulted in each section e.g. Prints, Photographs, Designs, National Art Library (NAL), Paintings etc detailing a top 3 wish-list (some eighteen projects in total) that with Conservation’s input could be assessed and costed in terms of conservation hours. WID would then be able to use these figures to prioritise across their department from each individual section’s wish-lists.

The other main source of objects needing conservation arises during routine working procedures whereby curators and print room staff identify objects in poor condition. Normally these objects would be placed in plan presses awaiting action from conservation staff. Inevitably due to lack of resources, many of these objects do not get higher on any priority list and therefore remain out of circulation and inaccessible. However, it has been recognised that some of these objects may actually need only minimum intervention in order to make them stable. In many cases simply placing an object in a Melinex envelope effectively raises its condition rating and allows it to be accessible again. It was accepted that training would be advantageous in giving non-conservation staff the confidence to make such decisions, therefore working in partnership with our curatorial colleagues in WID it was decided that training and advice should be made more readily available with monthly surgeries being initiated at which a conservator would go to WID. Objects could be brought to the conservator who would talk through the level of intervention needed for a particular damaged object. For example a print with a few small tears could be easily placed in a Melinex envelope. In this way the object remained in circulation, while other objects may simply need a new mount. These surgeries have empowered WID staff to feel confident about making these decisions themselves during the course of their everyday work when conservation staff may not be readily available. Many objects have been cleared from the conservation presses in this way and are now accessible again with equally fewer ‘damaged’ objects being automatically placed in the conservation presses in the first place.

Hand-in-hand with the training of WID staff via the monthly surgeries has been a re-assessment and re-drafting of the document ‘Curatorial Guide to Object Condition’. This is a general guide for non-conservators about how to assess an object’s conservation condition. This document has now been simplified and re-written with the main focus being in helping the non-conservator to be able to identify whether or not an object is stable. Therefore the different types of damage are classified as either Stable (conservation condition rating 1 – 2) or Unstable (condition rating 3 – 4). It is hoped that in this way, with training, non-conservators can assess if an object is stable and can go into storage and/or be accessible in the print room, or if the object is unstable and needs the attention of a conservator. This should further enhance the curator’s role in actively working with conservation to keep objects accessible where possible.

Conservation has an operational budget and this will be used to support the interventive work on WID’s core collections and to purchase external expertise if required. Projects that require large quantities of materials for mounting, boxing and phase boxing etc., will require financial support from WID. For example a plentiful supply of Melinex envelopes and other preservation housing will be required.

Since the inception of these strategies in February 2010 over 100 objects have been cleared from the old conservation drawers in WID. In addition a ‘conservation only’ drawer has been established, which will hold objects that need to come over to conservation for interventive work. These objects will be dealt with by permanent staff and/or students and interns when more interesting and challenging projects are required. PBP Section has agreed to ‘spend’ 1000 hours of conservation time on core collection work.

WID was also tasked with seeking internal and external funding for short term contracts to carry out the work on the larger prioritised projects. This has led to the funding of short term contracts to begin work on the Morris Sample Book, the Pugin designs, The Walton designs, the Hill and Adamson photographic album as well as the Dickens manuscripts. These projects have been further advanced with the help of interns, placements and permanent staff.

In conclusion this strategy has raised awareness of conservation matters generally and led to proactive involvement of both curators and conservators in dealing with the conservation of non-Public Programme objects.

I would like to thanks Ella Ravilious for her support in implementing this strategy.