Conservation has been high in my thoughts recently. Largely through my current work with ICOMOS-UK (International Council on Monuments and Sites UK) I have been exposed to the vicissitudes that affect the preservation and interpretation of our heritage, whether they are the result of inappropriate development, lack of funds or lack of collective and political will to stand up for cultural heritage as a fundamental part of modern society.
However, most upsetting, shocking, and all those things has been the news that the University of Southampton has decided to close down the Textile Conservation Centre at its Winchester Campus in late 2009 only a decade after it moved here from Hampton Court Palace. The reason given is financial, in short, that the University expects all its schools to fund themselves and the TCC, it was deemed, was not able to do this. I do not want to go into all the reasons given here. You can read up on it from the links below. A quick Google search will also show the coverage of the closure in the national press.
The whole business is personally distasteful to me. I am currently undertaking freelance work for the university, it is my alma mater. I therefore feel deeply embarrassed. I was a graduate of the Textile Conservation Centre in 2001 (MA Museum Studies) and maintain that my time there was intellectually the most stimulating experience of my life. Following this, my work on their research project on deliberately concealed garments produced one of the early attempts at getting collections online – and lit my passion for using the web to communicate our heritage. It has taken me a while to gather my thoughts – even now it seems daft to be writing about this. I could be writing about the government’s decision to close the British Museum or a local authority’s decision to level an ancient monument to make way for houses or offices. The feelings such things conjour are much the same. The futility of it all. Value for money, after all, is what exactly? After the anger and astonishment, the profound sadness.
As conservation (in the sense we understand it in heritage) is in every sense about ‘past thinking’ it seemed a good idea to talk about this here. Whatever the financial case made for the TCC’s closure, what is very clear is that this was certainly not a purely financial decision. The university was not itself going to go under because the TCC was using slightly more than it was contributing in monetary terms at least. Where there is a will there is a way. Sadly, Southampton had no will to continue to support one of its own ‘key distinctors’. Neither does it have the wisdom to realise the consequences of this action. The loss is not just Southampton’s or the UK’s, but the world’s. Organisations across the globe sent their people to the TCC to gain requisite skills in textile conservation and in museology, and take them back home. The combination was unique and they produced uniquely skilled graduates, the majority of whom have found very fulfilling careers in heritage, culture and conservation.
Here is a clear case of not taking responsibility, of not listening, of mis-judging and of being dishonourable. Universities ought to exist to further the bounds of human knowledge. It perplexes me to try and understand what has gone so wrong at Southampton. The one major source of funding for the TCC was the History of Art and Design degree. With its dissolution, it lost its link with Winchester School of Art which it formed part until last year. What, therefore, was the Centre able to do? Rugs (pardon the metaphor) pulled out from under them.
The world will only realise the impact of this in many years and decades to come when the skills required to preserve deteriorating garments, upholstery and other materials are no longer readily available. What is more, the extensive research and experimentation that is required to pioneer new techniques (something that the TCC excels at by a distance) will have not been undertaken. Just as we are realising this is happening in other parts of the conservation world (look out for ICOMOS-UK’s Action on Skills conference at the Prince’s Foundation on 29-30 April) why is this happening?
I look forward to reading 10 Downing Street’s response to a petition that was set up for the government to intervene. It closes on 6 May and already has over 3200 signatures. Please sign.