'Call to arms' for conservationists

Looming course closures and funding cuts blamed on low profile in policymaking, reports John Gill

December 4, 2008

Academics specialising in conservation have been told they must do more to win funding and influence both inside and outside universities, to avoid an emerging crisis in the field.

In a paper issuing a "call to arms", the think-tank Demos says that conservation is at a crossroads that must be turned into a "rallying point for change".

Samuel Jones, one of the authors of the report, pointed to the closure of university courses, or the threat of closure, as a visible symptom of the problem.

With only a handful of UK courses at masters level, he said that even when cancelled courses were re-opened - which is set to happen with Durham University's archaeological conservation course - irreparable damage had often been done.

He said: "An interesting parallel is in Australia, where a course was shut down and then a decision was made two years later to reopen it.

"They found that all the resources, the materials and the lab space, had been sold off, and all the talent, which is often closely associated with individual centres, had disappeared."

The report says that the UK is a world leader in the field, with more than half of Europe's conservation professionals educated and trained here.

But it warns that two of the UK's leading courses are threatened with closure, and a third looks set to lose significant funding in 2011, adding that "as budgets in higher education and the cultural sector are tightened, more closures could follow".

One of those facing an uncertain future is the conservation course at the Royal College of Art (RCA), which is run in conjunction with the Victoria and Albert Museum.

William Lindsay, head of conservation at the RCA, said the course was an example of "valued and relevant" work-based learning, adding: "Without a long-term strategy there will be no conservation and no need for conservation courses. That would be the crisis, but not just for conservation in higher education."

One of the problems identified by Demos is that the discipline's ability to attract income is affected by its relatively low profile. Far from conforming to the stereotype of a profession of "brown-coated serfdom for the aristocracy of curators", it says that it has amply demonstrated its "intellectual merit".

Nevertheless, it has remained underrepresented in policymaking.

"Leaders at the top of the cultural and heritage sector will need to make their case even more strongly than before, especially in a time of economic downturn," the report says.

"The same applies within higher education institutions, where budgets have to be balanced between different needs and departments."

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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