United Kingdom

Crisis in conservation programmes as another UK course closes

Who will look after historic houses and fragile museum objects, specialists ask?

LONDON. The UK’s position as a worldwide leader in conservation received another serious blow as London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) and the Royal College of Art have confirmed plans to close their joint post-graduate conservation training programme. This news comes three months after we reported the course was in jeopardy (April 2009, p.33) and five months after the Textile Conservation Centre at the University of Southampton—a leader in the field—announced it would close its doors on 31 October.

A joint statement says: “…the V&A’s priorities and needs in conservation training have changed and the RCA and V&A have therefore taken the decision to close the course”. The V&A says it intends to create a work-based conservation development programme for its staff, which will focus on developing skills “in areas where the museum needs additional assistance such as upholstery, textiles conservation and textile mounting”.

Meanwhile, although the University of Southampton recognises the Textile Conser­vation Centre (TCC) as one of its “centres of special excellence”, it announced in February that the centre will close because of its inability to be self-funding. According to the university, the centre’s “cross-subsidy from other areas of academic endeavour can no longer be justified”. The 34 year-old centre, originally housed at Hampton Court Palace, moved to a purpose-built facility in Winchester in 1999. The university originally hoped that the University of Oxford would take over the programme, but according to the TCC Foundation, efforts to transfer elements of the centre to Oxford failed because “of the pressure of creating new student places” at the university.

The closure of these training centres highlights the vulnerable position of conservation programmes, especially within the UK’s current university system. Unlike European programmes which are government subsidised, British universities require high student-teacher ratios to ensure that courses are self-funding. “The UK has moved from a publicly-funded context into a market-led context and what we’re observing is the impact on more expensive, more student-focused subjects like conservation which require low student-teacher ratios and costly equipment,” said Chris Woods, chair of the professional standards and development committee at the Institute of Conservation (Icon).

Whereas other disciplines can accommodate 30 students to one instructor, a subject such as conservation is a resource-intensive activity, requiring low student to teacher ratios and specialised facilities. Although other specialist fields such as physics have similar requirements, their ability to get lucrative research grants consistently makes their programmes viable.

“There is a crisis facing conservation training programmes. Very few programmes can meet the financial requirements stipulated by universities,” said Professor Colin Pearson from the University of Canberra. The Australian university’s conservation programme relaunched this February after the course—the only one in country at the time—was cancelled in 2002 for financial reasons.

“Universities need to be convinced that conservation is a special case and accept that it is expensive,” said Professor Pearson, adding: “A change of management can put these courses at risk. A new dean wanted to introduce forensic science and suddenly we lost our labs.” The university has restructured its programme so that practical training is done at national institutions and theoretical instruction is done in the classroom.

The announcement of TCC’s planned closure has led to a public outcry from the cultural heritage community, leading many to call the University of Southampton’s decision “short-sighted” and “arrogant”. Others feel the government should be held responsible. Anne Bacon, a conservator who recently retired from North­umbria University, said: “I don’t blame the university. If there’s blame at all, it’s with the system. These programmes are never going to reach the funding equation that the government requires.” Dr David Saunders, keeper in the British Museum’s department of conservation and scientific research, said: “One can see the logic in the university’s decision. Conservation is a space-hungry activity and textile conservation is possibly the most space-hungry. I suspect it’s purely a hard-headed fiscal decision.”

Many fear that the loss of the TCC, and now the RCA/V&A course, will result in the field taking a step backwards. “We will go back 30 years to apprenticeships in museums and all the work done to raise the profile of conservation and train conservators will be in vain,” said Lynda Hillyer, former head of the V&A’s Textile Studio from 1989 to 2006. “Museums can’t be responsible for teaching new textile conservators. It needs an academic framework and credibility—the grounding that only a university setting can provide,” adds Dr Saunders.

The pioneering research generated by these centres will also be lost. “The type of research the TCC conducted could not be done by those in the normal working environment. It could only be done in a university setting,” said private US conservator, Deirdre Windsor. Kate Frame, head of conservation and collections care at the Historic Royal Palaces, the world’s largest employer of textile conservators, said: “We have made a huge investment in textile treatments based upon the research and skills we’re getting from the TCC.”

The greatest concern is the potential threat to the world’s cultural heritage. “Conservation is a critical core function of heritage,” said Ms Frame. Jerry Podany, president of the International Institute for Conservation, said: “If we continue to whittle away at these resources and are unwilling to support them, particularly during difficult times, what is going to happen to the world’s treasures? What does this say about what we value?”

The Department for Culture Media and Sport, and the TCC declined to comment.

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