A Consistent Approach to a Mixed Collection

Jonathan Ashley-Smith
Head of Conservation, V&A Museum
London, UK
Jonathan@jonsmith.demon.co.uk

Text of a talk given at the British Museum during the Conference "Restoration: Is It Acceptable?" 24-25 November 1994.

This text is substantially different to that published in the preprints, BM Occasional Paper 99, The British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG. ISBN 0 86159 099 6. Offprints of the writtten text are available from the author on request.

The work described in this paper was reported further in a paper presented by Alison Richmond at the 1995 AIC Annual Meeting.


For a second day this conference asks "is restoration acceptable?" For that question to be asked suggests that someone has the view that restoration is not acceptable. In which case some alternative form of behaviour must be acceptable. This good behaviour is probably called conservation or minimum intervention or, these days, collections management.

In the Conservation Department at the V&A we display all of these behaviours: conservation, restoration, intervention, management... you name it... we do it... and needless to say we find them all totally acceptable. We do these things because we find them acceptable and we find them acceptable... because we do them. We perpetrate these acts of conservation and restoration skilfully and intelligently. Or, at least, we like to believe that each of our actions is:

• appropriate to the context,

• guided by common principles of professional good practice.

But, because of the size and variety of the collections and the different ways they are used. And because of the number and nature of the conservation staff and the ways that different conservation disciplines have developed, there is a strong possibility that, occasionally, the actions of one conservator may not be acceptable to all of his or her peers.

For this reason we have tried to develop a system that might lead to a consistent approach to a mixed collection.

To find a range of different approaches may not be surprising when you have a variety of objects that are used in a variety of ways. The V&A does have a very varied collection.

In the public galleries you can find original works of art varying in size from Leighton frescoes to Hilliard miniatures. You can find historic reproductions of works of art, such as a full size plaster-cast of Michaelangelo's David. There are objects that were once in use, such as tables, chairs and beds... and there are objects which might make more sense to the visitor if they were now in use, such as clocks and musical instruments.

Then, off public display, there are the reference and archive collections. The demand to use these and the access that is granted to them depends on the type of object, which can vary from a collection of carrier bags to one of Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks.

A variety of approaches might be expected when you have such a variety of individuals from different backgrounds, who are different stages of development. In my written paper I have described how, among other factors, the history and the geography of the V&A have accentuated differences in the approach to similar problems. Differences which originated in different roots and different social classes.

    [Slide 1

    Roots
    Class
    Geography
    Longevity]

The different conservation disciplines come from very different

roots. These range from the previously male-dominated craft areas of smithing and stonemasonry, to the more recently female-dominated areas such as the textile crafts and domestic care. Distinct attitudes to problem-solving, which may not relate solely to the distinct properties of relevant materials, have passed, from these roots, through the different training institutions and then carried into the various conservation specialisms.

Class-The freedom of the conservator to have and to state opinions about the treatment of the object, is as recent as the entry of the middle-class graduate into the lower grades of museum work.

At the end of the second world war, as the V&A was re-staffing, senior curatorial posts were filled by young graduate officers and the other posts were filled from the ranks. One group trained to give orders and the other group trained to carry them out without question. Only as the class and education of object repairers approached that of the curators was there a possibility of their opinions being listened to. This class barrier was overcome in different disciplines at different times, leading to a further variation amongst conservation specialisms in attitude and in levels of confidence. For whatever reason, the upper class infiltrated paintings conservation long before any other discipline.

The geography of the V&A as well as its organisational structure has meant that there is surprisingly little informal or accidental communication between curators and conservators, or between curators in different disciplines, or between conservators in different disciplines. So while there have always been reasons for business transactions between specialist conservators and specialist curators dealing with the same material, there has been no perceived need and little opportunity for cross-disciplinary changes of attitude.

Longevity- Life in the conservation department at the V&A is so satisfying that there is very little turnover of staff and people stay in the same studios working in the same disciplines for decades. Even heavy smokers survive until their retirement. So if roots, class barriers and geographical isolation have contributed to ingrained prejudices these are likely to be retained over very long periods.

    [Slide 2

    Conservation-Restoration
    Primary Aims
    Intervention
    Risk of damage]

If we are here to blackball Restoration we ought to know what it is. Restoration is an eleven letter word and far too long to be used as a term of abuse. Nor are the words restoration and conservation mutually exclusive.

Is a tomato a vegetable or a fruit? Yes!

Is what we do at the V&A conservation or restoration? Yes!

You can see the two as poles of a continuum of behaviour, or possibly as overlapping circles on a Venn diagram. But however you look there are probably more similarities than differences.

I was interested in Andrew Oddy's recasting of "One man's meat is another man's poison" for I would have said that cleaning was restoration and that mounting was conservation. But maybe its just a question of motivation. Two different motivations may result in the same action.

Conservation and restoration. Consider their purpose, their primary aims.

The primary aim of conservation is to slow the processes of deterioration and make sure that instances of sudden damage are made less probable.

The primary aim of restoration is to make the object more visually appealing and enable it to provide the information it contains about materials, design and purpose, more readily.

If you accept those definitions there is no reason to think of restoration and conservation as diametrically opposed, let alone think of one of them as unacceptable.

Consider intervention. Restoration is condemned as highly interventive. Reweaving a missing area of tapestry, replacing a missing nose on a piece of sculpture. In terms of the physical and potential chemical interaction with historic material these actions are far less interventive than say consolidating worm-eaten wood or supporting brittle silk by sticking or stitching .

It is intervention that increases the risk of damage, whether that intervention is for improved stability or improved appearance.

What decreases the risk of damage... are skill, experience, intelligence... all those things that you, the conservators in the audience, have.

Interventions for appearance can often bring benefits to stability by reducing the risk of damage. Replacing missing veneer will prevent further veneer from lifting under the influence of changes of humidity or the tug of the duster.

The irreversible process of washing a discoloured piece of paper may improve stability by raising pH and improving flexibility. Now if you washed the paper with the purpose of raising the pH, it might have the added advantage of removing unsightly discolouration. But, in general, it is less usual for intervention, whose intention is to improve stability, to have side-effects that improve the appearance.

Indeed when it comes to non-interventive conservation such as encapsulation, boxing, placing in showcases and turning the lights down, the effect is always to detract from the appearance of the object, and reduce the amount of information it can provide at that moment.

It should be noted that there is such a thing as non-interventive restoration through the making of reproductions or models and, increasingly fashionable, through computer technology.

    [Slide 3

    Unacceptable
    Increased risk of Damage
    Detectable Damage
    (Damage is Loss of Utility)]

So it is not restoration as such that is not acceptable... but any process that increases the risk of damage. For instance a consolidant that may break down and cause accelerated degradation of original material, or a support that may constrain the object during fluctuations of humidity.

But if we want to include all the possible sins of incompetent conservators and all the wrong-doings evil restorers we have to be certain we agree on what we mean by damage.

To arrive at a definition of damage one way would be to consider the change in the value of an object resulting from the process.

Within a museum the value of an object is its potential to provide information or enjoyment. To avoid confusion with monetary value one could use the economists' term "utility"... that is the potential to be useful. Once again the use of an object is to be enjoyed or to add to understanding.

Increased stability increases utility because the object can be used profitably over a longer period of time. Improving the appearance will increase utility as a greater quantity of enjoyment or understanding will be made available at any one instant.

Obviously, any process that causes immediate detectable damage is unacceptable.

But not all change is damage. Not all change, deliberate or accidental, leads to loss of utility. A change in paper colour, whether it results from deterioration or restoration, does not alter the information in the printed word.

And not all physical loss is damage. The removal of samples for analysis or the removal of discoloured varnish may greatly increase the utility of an object.

But unfortunately we are judged not only by the way our actions affect the potential use, enjoyment and understanding of individual objects. There are other forms of behaviour that are deemed unacceptable...

    [Slide 4

    Failure to:
        Meet Objectives
        Prioritise
        Give Value for Money]

These phrases, that are now unconsciously part of our post-Thatcherite strategic vocabulary, convey messages that have driven some to ignore the added value derived from altering the appearance of dirty, broken or decayed objects.

Take the word objectives.... Objectives are time-bounded. And there is so little time. And time is money.

Priorities are given to... projects, to programmes, and to collections of objects rather than to the needs of an individual object.

Value for money is often wrongly interpreted as a need for minimum treatment by minimum-wage staff. Andrew Oddy's dream come true!

All of these have led to an idea that highly skilled interaction with individual objects is wrong, dirty, or shameful, rather than merely more expensive than some alternatives. Choosing this inference, some people forget that with the increase in utility through increased flow of information and the fortuitous increase in stability, intelligent and skilled intervention is bound to be good value for money.

But I am digressing seriously. My point was that when you have a crowd of conservators with different backgrounds and experience, tackling a wide range of treatments, on objects made for different purposes, that are going to be used in all sorts of different ways.... There is a chance that they will not react in identical ways.

So you need a method of determining whether this difference in response is a problem. And if it turns out to be, you need a mechanism that will encourage people to think in a more consistent way. (I was interested in David Bomford's remark that no matter how carefully you choose a neutral background colour it will not look consistent as its appearance changes with the context. So even if we achieve consistency it may still not look that way. I hope that the most consistent view will be that some objects are more important than others and demand more attention.)

Ideally, whatever guidance is proposed, it can be used in training young conservators who have not accumulated enough experience to make sound decisions or had enough time to develop bad habits. The V&A's previous attempts are described in my written paper. Today I will only discuss the most recent initiative.

Over the past year a small group of conservation staff at the V&A have been developing a checklist of things that a conservation professional should consider before undertaking any action. The first draft of this list appears on pages 92 and 93 of the conference papers. It is now in second draft, accompanied by explanatory notes. It has been the subject of two departmental seminars and an evaluation in practice. ( Copies available on request)

    [Slide  5
    Checklist

    Purpose
    Consultation
    Significance
    Options
    Resources
    Outcomes
    Evaluation]

In a minute I will run through some of the results of this evaluation and let you judge whether it is actually helpful to us or might be helpful to you.

There are A-P questions on the checklist. Numbers were avoided, to prevent an automatic assumption about order or rank. The seven words you see on the screen summarise the areas covered by the sixteen questions, but do not appear on the list as such. The compilers of the checklist deliberately avoided grouping the questions because there were so many inter-relationships. Creating groups give more importance of some of these links at the expense of others.

I shall be over-riding these wishes for the sake of this explanation.

The compilers of the list were anxious that it should not be judgmental, nor should it prescribe a set course of action. They were also concerned that it should be used by all conservation professionals, not only conservators proposing interventive treatments.

If you look at the words on the screen you will see that they encapsulate the necessary stages of good decision-making in any area of activity.

If we are to do as Andrew Oddy wishes and avoid the word "ethics" we can always substitute the phrase "decision-making". This reinforces the view that good management is a part of ethics just as ethics is a part of good management.

Lets just run through them.

• what is the purpose of the proposed action, why am I doing this?

• Do I know the documented history of the project and the views of all the stakeholders?

• What are the significant factors? Have I considered all the factors that contribute to the value/utility of the object?

• What are the options open to me, including the option of doing nothing?

• What are the available resources. Not only money and space but my own skills and experience, my patience and courage?

• Can I predict the long-term outcomes of the possible courses of action?

• How will I evaluate whether I have made the best decision?

Because of this close link between ethical choices and sound management procedures, it was not surprising that, during the discussions about the checklist a degree of unsoundness was discovered in existing procedures within the Department. These related mostly to access to documentation and channels of communication with conservation and curatorial colleagues. Or, more honestly, absence of documentation and absence of communication.

The working group thought that as Head of Department it was my job to sort those things out. My reaction to this was to go on a year's leave.

The purpose of the checklist is to encourage thought and consultation before action. While I run through these slides the important thing for you to be considering is, "was the conservator stimulated to consider the purpose of treatment, the views of other interested parties, the options and the outcomes"?. I'm not going to spend a great deal of time describing condition or treatment but read some of the comments of the conservators as they recorded their progress through the checklist and their reactions to using it..

The images are to give you some idea of the types of problem. Each successive image does not represent a successive stage in using the checklist, I'm showing more than one view merely for variety and to give you some respite from the monotony of my voice.

Then followed 21 slides showing 5 case histories. The slides were changed at more or less appropriate points in the monologue.

Extracts from contributions by Conservators

1. Pip Hunt:

Design for a shawl by Collier Campbell 1977, made of paper, acetate sheet and selotape, all of which have water-based poster paint on them.

Purpose-Due to its deteriorating condition, it was extremely awkward to move or to turn the object over. The successful bonding together of the object's separate layers make it stable enough to withstand a far greater degree of handling and movement.

Documentation- Since there were no existing records for this object, I found it useful to run through the checklist, ensuring that I had consulted all of the relevant parties....

Consultation- The composite nature of the object- with its relatively unusual combination of materials meant that it was necessary to talk to both plastics and paper specialists, and also to conservation scientists at the Tate Gallery and abroad. After gathering information from these various sources, I was able to choose what was considered the most suitable method of conservation....Once this method was applied to the actual object, it proved successful in adhering the various parts together. However it did cause a slight blooming of the existing selotape. Despite this, I remain convinced that I followed the most suitable route for the conservation of this object, having consulted the ethics checklist thoroughly before any treatment was carried out.

2. Sam Whitney:

German 16th Century stained glass panel.

Purpose-Action is needed because the bowing may deteriorate to an extent whereby the glass is in danger of cracking.

Significance- Historic and Technical- The panel has almost certainly been reglazed in the past, probably in the in the nineteenth century, and there is evidence of additional leads as repair leads. Intervention of the panel would alter the historical and technical aspects of the glass.....

-Associations- There are no associations to other objects, or parts of objects.

-Sacred- None (JAS note- British conservators, working in museums in Britain, do not think of Christian artefacts as being in any way sacred.

-Makers intentions- The makers intentions have been altered by the addition of repair leads on the panel.

Effect of actions on evidence- Historic and Technical- The safety of the panel would be improved by eliminating the bowing along the outside edge. The hairline cracks would be stabilised ensuring their safety. The iconography would be enhanced by the removal of the repair leads.

-Makers intentions- The panel would be returned to its intended appearance.

Sufficient Skill?-The skills and Techniques required to restore this panel to its original condition are well practised.

Future use and location-There are no plans to relocate this object from its present situation. Should the object be required for loan, the policy of sending objects in a safe and secure condition would apply.

Assess success and obtain feedback- By monitoring the panel in situ in the gallery, and inviting comments from Ceramics Collection on the work undertaken.

3. Victoria Button:

Willem Kip Engraving. c1603 after Stephen Harrison.

Documentation- Couldn't find out much about Willem Kip- his claim to fame appears to be these very prints....Stephen Harrison. Very useful information about him and this series in Dictionary of National Biography.

Consultation- The curator discussed the mounting and set the print in to context for me. The mounting of the print is important because of the early acquisition of the object in conjunction with the early history of the Museum. The difference in mounting technique could be said to mirror the different approaches to display techniques and ideas about the object itself. The curator believes that the outer mount is of this century and does not really do the image any justice..............There are remains of a paper hinge which could have been part of a book spine which would suggest that the prints in this series were once bound (Dict. Nat. Biog. says was part of a folio). It is important to record the phases the prints may have been through before taking any decisions on the treatment.............Basically a question of taste plays a large part in the decision process.

4. Sasa Kosinova

French 14th century carved walnut sculpture, at one time painted and gilded.

Appropriate Skill?- My thinking went along the lines of " if the Westerners can do it, so can I" (Sasha is Czech!)

Established courses of action?- Its like making a cocktail, creative within the given limits.

Feedback- Will demand expensive dinners and multi- lingual compliments.

5. Alison Richmond

Falling man -Lodovico Carracci 1557-1619

Purpose- It is intended that this drawing be displayed in a new gallery. However this is an open access collection and the drawing is double-sided.

The drawing needs to be stable enough to be handled when not on display. The present condition and mounting method of the drawing would not allow handling without serious risk of damage occurring. (There is usually more than one reason for action.)

Consultation- The Curator says " among most important OMDs in our collection", does not feel the repairs are intrusive and wants only the ones which are causing damage to be removed.

Two paper conservators felt repairs were heavy handed and obscuring the original and should therefore be removed if it could be done safely. A furniture conservator felt the repairs were not obtrusive.

Decision 1- Decision made to remove damaging repair only and to attach new repair, to remount in double sided mount, and to frame in double-sided frame with laminated glass.

In the meantime the display date for the drawing had been postponed by six months allowing time for interventive treatment.

What I have learned- The ethics checklist does not give any answers to the question "What should I do?". It can be used to achieve any number of results. It encourages you to consider as many options as you can think of.... The conservator should be willing to consult the checklist at any time during the action, not just at the beginning. Considering the questions on the ethics checklist is only part of the story, a simultaneous dialogue with the object is essential.

It is vital to keep an open mind all the way through the process. Don't verbalise a decision before consultations, as your opinion will affect others. Don't settle on an absolute decision before you have tested your procedure. At any time during the action you may have to stop what you are doing and change tack. other options which do not seem possible at the beginning, or at any stage, may subsequently appear during the course of the action.

A major part of ethical treatment is to continually ask questions about what you are doing, and to decide how far to go, and when to stop.


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