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Sandra Smith
Head of Conservation, Collection Services

Sandra Smith

A change in government brings with it a change in emphasis for cultural organisations. The V&A, along with all the other DCMS funded museums and galleries, has received a 15% cut to its resource Grant-in-Aid over the next four years. The Grant settlement includes the conditions that:

  • the world-class collections and front-line services of the V&A are to be protected
  • we continue to work in partnership with other museums in the UK
  • we pursue ways to increase our self-generated income, including through private giving

Whilst finding these savings will be a challenge, the Museum anticipates that it will still be able to offer a world class events programme. 2010 saw the V&A’s most ambitious public programme to date delivered; the Conservation Department has conserved, analysed or assessed (Nodding and Egan) around 1700 objects for 22 gallery refurbishments, 25 exhibitions (Shah et al., Morris and Hunter, Greig, Coueignoux), 5 contemporary displays (Battison), 45 small displays, 40 UK and International touring exhibitions (Glenn, Miller and Gatley, Richardson and Costaras) together with loans, publications and undertaken work to ensure the long term preservation of the collections (Derbyshire, Navarro).

In 2011 a similarly ambitious programme is planned though core conservation staffing will have been reduced by 10%. The new year will see the retirement of two long service and internationally respected members of staff: Professor Graham Martin, Head of Science, and Juanita Navarro, Senior Ceramics Conservator. Their contribution to the Museum and to the profession is immense and the department shall be the poorer without their skills and experience. Looking ahead, the department will deliver through a mixed economy; contracting work out, offering project-focussed short-term contracts; an increased involvement with trainee conservators (Smith) and exploring the use of volunteers.

The principles of ‘the big society’ have long been practiced by independent and local museums, and institutions such as the National Trust, offering volunteers the opportunity to contribute to the preservation of their heritage. Fear of condemnation from the profession or the perpetuated belief that only ‘trained’ conservators can treat the collections often prevents public involvement with interventive work. The work of Anglo-Saxon CSI, Sittingbourne, Kent where finds are being conserved almost entirely by conservation interns and volunteers, highlights the enormous wealth of untapped, transferable skills available within local communities. (1) This ground-breaking project has shown that with careful training, good supervision and mutual trust, volunteers can sensitively and successfully examine and treat even the most fragile collections.

Our experience of working with volunteers to clean glazed ceramics for the Ceramic II galleries which opened in April 2010 has showed us that sharing the experience of working on national collections helps the public to appreciate the more complex work undertaken by the conservators. The forthcoming year will offer opportunities for volunteers to work with the plaster cast collections and assist with the transfer of 104,000 textiles to a new study centre in West London.

The successes of the year have been enormous, and we continue to delight in working with colleagues from other museums and institutions to research and understand the collections (Wagner, Keneghan, Stevens ). However, the achievements are overshadowed by the loss of Merryl Huxtable. Having worked in conservation for almost 30 years she has played a role in the careers of many paper conservators across the world. We dedicate this edition of the Conservation Journal to her memory, her outstanding professionalism and her endlessly positive spirit.


(1) Maev Kennedy ‘How Sittingbourne discovered an archaeological treasure trove’ The Guardian Sunday 15 August 2010