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Sandra Smith
Head of Conservation

Digital technology now forms an integral part of the working practice of the V&A’s Conservation Department: from the way we present our work – this is the first entirely digital edition of the V&A Conservation Journal – to the way in which we have developed efficient ways of recording the condition of objects during touring exhibitions (Egan, Battisson).

Technology and modern materials are increasingly becoming part of the V&A Collections through the acquisition of twentieth- and twenty-first-century art and design. Whilst still a proportionally small part of the 2.7 million items within the collection, modern items such as digital art, 3D printed furniture and synthetic textiles require conservators to develop new skills; in order to preserve and interpret them.

Ongoing training in the identification and differentiation of polymeric materials is essential for curators and conservators as technological developments extend the range and complexity of materials entering the collections. Best practice addresses the need to predict the lifetimes of the items, cost their preservation and inform acquisition policies and care strategies (Keneghan).

Twentieth- and twenty-first-century items are acquired by the Museum as examples of original design. They are less likely to have been modified to reflect changing fashions over time as found on a damascened iron table (Wills), and, if acquired direct from the design studio, they will not have ownership associations or exhibit evidence of use (Bainbridge). It may be that investigative conservation, which is essential before treating historic items, is less in demand for modern collections.

Where interventive conservation is required, parallels can be drawn with the restoration campaign of the Cast Courts gallery project (Marques) and the conservation and display of original stained glass panels from the staircase landings outside the Lydia and Manfred Gorvy Lecture Theatre (Eatman). All treatment will occur in a museum context and reflect current conservation ethics, materials and techniques. The idiosyncrasies of restoration which reflect historic changes in fashion will not be present as a source of future research (Ramakers).

The Dr Susan Weber Gallery for Furniture, which opened in December 2012, demonstrates traditional and modern manufacturing techniques. The exploded replica of the Cramer commode, created using eighteenth-century handtools, is juxtaposed with a video of the 3-D printing of a table (Mifsud). Conservators must understand these techniques if they are to interpret the resultant surface finishes in the future.Unlike traditional sample books (Rutherston), authenticity can be less clear cut with some modern materials: whether it is the digital files, the printed furniture (which may be one of several identical copies) or both, which are the ‘original’ can be debated. Conservators will continue to preserve the tangible printed item but not the digital version which requires skills outside our field.

The success of the ‘Hollywood Costume’ exhibition depended on recreating signature features associated with classic Hollywood films (Gatley and Morris). Movement was created through the mounting process bringing the actors and characters to life: from simply turning out Charlie Chaplin’s feet to recreating the action pose, complete with billowing overcoat, of the character Neo from the 1999 film ‘The Matrix’,conservation skills enabled the visitor to respond emotionally to inanimate modern costume by evoking living memories.

The importance of collaborative work, which enables the Museum to add to existing in-house expertise can be seen in the treatment of a Chinese hanging scroll acquired by the V&A in 2010. Following extensive consultation with Susan Catcher and Hongxing Zhang from the V&A, conservation work, involving remounting, was undertaken in the Hirayama Studio at The British Museum by Mrs Qiu Jin Xian and Valentina Marabini, specialists in the conservation of Chinese paintings. The skills acquired by V&A staff as a result of this collaboration will prove invaluable in future Museum projects (Catcher and Marabini).

V&A curators working on the revision of the Foreign Paintings Catalogue were greatly assisted by findings made during the examination and treatment of a number of paintings that formed part of a display entitled ‘Research on Paintings’. The display demonstrated how art historical research is enhanced by technical information acquired through the process of conservation, thereby underlining the importance of close collaboration – in this case, between curators and conservators within the V&A (Richardson).