The new British Museum conservation labs have been the talk of the profession since they opened late last year, so I was pleased to have a tour of them with Dr Anna Buelow, the acting head of conservation, two weeks ago.
The raw data is that the BM has built a new £135 million facility known as the World Conservation and Exhibition Centre, which brings together all their conservation labs into one building over 18,000 square metres along with the Museum's exhibition operations and a new exhibition space.
A full description can be found in the latest News in Conservation, the free publication of IIC, so I will not dwell on the detail, but rather pick up my takeaways from the visit:
- First and foremost is the flexibility that has been achieved. It seems to have become a key buzz word in the planning process, and it has resulted in spaces that can be almost infinitely reconfigured to suit the requirements of the objects being worked on. This is helped by almost all staff (some 80 at present) hot desking, thus ensuring it is easy for staff to relocate to another space that may suit the treatment better.
- Alongside this flexibility is the benefits that have come from bringing all the disciplines under one roof, and encouraging cross disciplinary use of spaces. Thus, textiles and paper now share a wet space, which is not only more efficient but ensures the two sections work closely together in their planning. This process of cross disciplinary collaboration is further aided by a central break out area with comfy chairs, where for the first time in living memory all the departments can get together socially.
- And just as this brings about efficiencies of operations, so also ease of access has been massively increased. Previously any large objects had to be brought into the labs through the exhibition halls, thus meaning it had to be undertaken out of hours. Now with dedicated loading dock access (including the largest truck lift in Europe), all this movement can take place during normal hours.
- Finally, what particularly struck me is that the labs are not full of sparkling new state of the art equipment, not that they don't present very smartly. The money has been spent more subtly on flexible furniture (see above) and quality finishes, such as beautiful polished concrete floors in the sculpture labs with much of the tried and tested equipment brought from the old labs.
Well done to the BM - Seven years of planning has produced a model to us all on how to develop a conservation facility for current times.