The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 15, Number 4
Jul 1991


Managing Conservation, edited by Suzanne Keene. United Kingdom Institute for Conservation, 37 Upper Addison Gardens, London W14 8AJ; 1990. 32 pp. ISBN 1871656109. Members, 95 or $10; nonmembers, £7 or $14.

Reviewed by Scott Haskins
Director and Conservator, Fine Arts Conservation laboratories, Santa Barbara.

Managing Conservation is the collection of seven papers which w-re given at a conference held jointly by the United Kingdom Institute for Conservation and the Museum of London in October of 1990. The information is presented specifically to conservation administrators within the United Kingdom. Within the 32-page publication there is little to offer those with more than just a superficial experience in the conservation field. The titles of the papers give an indication of the generic nature of these postprints: "Why Do We Preserve Objects?" "What Do Managers Do?" "Managing Museum Space," "Using Standards," "Managing Conservators," "Managing Conservation and Design," "Measuring Deterioration: A Finite Life for Objects" and "Benefits vs. Costs in Environmental Control."

In his introduction to "Why Do We Preserve Objects?" Max Hebditch theorizes an the sociological and psychological aspects of objects within museums. After discussing the raison d'etre of a museum he concludes that a "museum cannot be a business," which is a comment that many museum and conservation administrators could discuss with some passion.

Peter Rose, in his paper entitled "What Do Managers Do?" reviews basic qualities of those who or administer conservation departments. In his article he states some reminders for supervisors. He laments, "Too often those who reach the position of manager do so with little or no training in what their new role will entail." Simply stated, excellent conservators do not always make good supervisors. He then discusses some of the leadership aspects of a good supervisor which he feels are overlooked.

The next article, "Museum Space" by Vince Wilcox, presents the concepts of schematics which are used in many industries throughout the world today and which are now beginning to be applied to the field of conservation. "Schematics" is the computer design for placement and flow of objects within restricted spaces. A common application for this type of computer management is in the supermarket chains, where spaces on shelves are fought over vigorously by food companies and which are planned and managed by brokers to increase the efficiency of visibility, storage, rotation and, ultimately, sales. This article describes the state of the art for U.K. readers of what is being used by the Smithsonian Institution in the development of its space management program.

In the paper entitled "Using Standards" by May Cassar and Suzanne Keene, the concept of standardizing all aspects within the conservation laboratory of the museum is encouraged. The authors think that there should be a standard applied to every aspect of the job description and they state that if "a new library or archive store is being planned , then a well informed conservator can provide a reference to British Standard 5454;1989." Their expectations of what is required to be "well informed" appears contradicted, however, when they also state that "few conservators will have time to digest the detailed publications setting out the sort of damage objects can suffer under particular display conditions." The standards proposed appear to have been set by the British Standards Institution, which, unlike the building regulations, are nonenforceable guidelines. While the authors summarize the use of standards within the conservation field and for those who supervise conservators, they also re-emphasize and prorate the importance of following standards which will result in raising the quality of work.

Dr. Jonathan Ashley-Smith, in his paper "Managing Conservators," references many good sources for reading about the subject of management but also laments that "I have always been disappointed when inviting trainers into the department.,, He concludes that "I will argue that managing conservators is substantially different from managing any other group of workers." Although his explanations for this phenomenon may sound like "whining and special pleading," he still gives the impression that he has a studied interest in the subject. The article is supported with graphs and charts. He makes generic suggestions of duties for those who supervise conservators, but perhaps his best example is in his critical evaluation of his own personal productivity and hours which he spends at his job. His good example would suggest that others do the same and that personal contact and managing individual persons is the key to good supervision.

Conservation and Design" by John William Morris is information written for museum officials who must deal with conservators, rather than for the conservators themselves. His overgeneralized article is summarized in his conclusion, "All the management effort of a conservator employed to assist with the design project must be directed to safeguard the object."

Susan M. Bradley's article, "Do Objects Have a Finite Life Time?" is another article that I find hard to believe was written for the benefit of conservators. Some of the subjects within her discourse include why objects are made and what happens to then, the purpose of museums, the role of the conservator, deterioration of objects in the museum and the prevention of deterioration. in the last section basic standards of atmospheric conditions are mentioned without discussing the dangers of fluctuations beyond those standards.

The last article, "Benefits vs. Cost in Environmental Control," was written by Sarah Staniforth. She is straightforward in admitting that her experience with this subject matter is limited; however, she recognizes that the subject of money often arises in the political discussions within the museum environment. Her illustrations of the problem and her examples are presented in an effort to "speak their language." Presenting a cost analysis, albeit superficial, may give the conservation administrator one more perspective to present to his supervisors in his fight for funding. This article tries to shed some light on this and encourages this approach to arguing the case for conservation funding.

The publication itself uses a type size and style that make the letters run together, making the reading difficult. In addition, the proofreading was less than perfect. As editor Suzanne Keene states, "the papers published here tackle a number of management issues that are fundamental to conservation." Information presented in this small publication does not touch on specific examples within conservation laboratories, but presents basic information to those within the museum environment whose job includes working with conservators and for those who should adopt conservation principles into their work.

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