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Friday, May 30 • 2:30pm - 2:50pm
(Case Studies in Sustainable Collection Care Session) Becoming ‘Fit for Purpose: A Sustainable and Viable Conservation Department at the British Library

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The majority of museums, libraries and archives in the UK are heavily dependent on government funding. The British Library (BL) with a vast and varied collection, numbering 150 million items, is no exception. Funding cuts as a result of the current economic situation has led to reduced resources and capacity and an increasing emphasis on public accountability and efficiency. Whilst resources are being reduced, however, demand for Conservation services at the BL is simultaneously increasing due to digitisation programmes. The Conservation department at the British Library needed to find a solution to sustain impact for treatment of its core collections and to maintain 6 concurrent work streams that contribute to the strategic priorities of the BL.

This paper will explain the approach developed and evaluate the success of the project through statistics of items treated and feedback from BL conservators and curators.

The first step was to go back to basics asking the following:

  • Why are the objects being conserved?

  • How do they need to function?

  • What treatment work is required to enable this?

  • Can we do less treatment and still enable the object to function?

  • An accessible immediate approach was agreed as the best course. Thus the expression ‘fit for purpose’ was devised to denote that Conservation will only treat what is absolutely necessary. All treatments would be re-evaluated and condensed, or not undertaken.

    The reassessment of 7 large existing conservation projects using the ‘fit for purpose’ approach reduced treatment hours by 3858.5 hours. The equivalent of 2.9 full time conservator posts, which could be reassigned to other projects.

    Additionally, new and more meaningful Key Performance Indicators were devised to measure improvement. These KPIs have the added benefit of sustaining the initial emphasis throughout the financial year, acting as a point of focus.

    The number of completed quick turnaround treatments has increased by 500% in one year. Recorded statistics show 850 quick treatments completed (with an average 6 hrs treatment) compared with 165 items completed for the previous year. Further evidence of the impact of the approach will be given.

    The outcomes of the project go beyond quantitative measures, although these are readily communicated to justify the remaining resources for conservation. In qualitative terms less interventive treatment can arguably be better for the collection. Undertaking more extensive treatments leading to unintentional loss of potential significance had always been a risk and an historic reality. The paper will argue that the concept of retreatability becomes more relevant and can enable more interpretations in the future. Moreover, this disciplined approach determines fewer solvents, detergents and additives are being used. Feedback from curators is generally positive and more sophisticated discussion of significance and value has been generated between conservation and curatorial areas. Conservators are more aware of why items are being preserved and the level of conservation required achieving this.

Session Moderator(s)
avatar for Sarah Nunberg

Sarah Nunberg

Conservator, The Objects Conservation Studio, LLC
Sarah Nunberg, principal of The Objects Conservation Studio, LLC, has been working as a conservator since 1989. She specializes in conservation of archaeological, ethnographic, decorative and contemporary art, treating objects made of wood, ceramic, stone, metal, glass, skin, leather... Read More →

avatar for Dr. Cordelia Rogerson

Dr. Cordelia Rogerson

Head of Conservation, British Library
After a BA in Art History at the University of Manchester, Cordelia studied at the Textile Conservation Centre, Courtauld Institute of Art. She was employed by the Textile Conservation Centre on graduating, firstly as a practising conservator, later as researcher and lecturer for... Read More →

Friday May 30, 2014 2:30pm - 2:50pm PDT
Grand Ballroom A