By Jonathan Ashley-Smith
I converted from chemistry to conservation on 1st January 1973. The day I started work at the V&A in London was the day that the UK finally joined the European Economic Community. It was also the last New Year’s Day that was not a public holiday in England. My boss was Norman Brommelle, who at that time was in his second stint as Secretary General of IIC; a term in office that lasted from 1966-1988.
Brommelle encouraged me to join IIC, and some years later he was responsible for my nomination as IIC Fellow. My documentation of my early membership was severely compromised when all my copies of Studies in Conservation and Art and Archaeology Technical Abstracts were stolen. I had temporarily put them in a lock-up garage in boxes marked as containing computer equipment. The thief who broke in must have thought he had struck lucky, which in a way he had.
I succeeded Brommelle as head of the V&A conservation department in 1977. I now had my hands on a budget and eventually got ‘round to attending IIC congresses. I went to the meetings in Washington (‘82), Paris (‘84), Bologna (‘86) and Kyoto (‘88). The first time I spoke at a congress was in Ottawa in 1994. The subject of the conference was preventive conservation, and the title of my presentation was “Let’s be Honest - Realistic Environmental Parameters for Loaned Objects”. This is a title I have returned to 26 years later for the IIC “Conservation and Philosophy Symposium” (26-27 November 2020) where I have called my contribution “Let’s be honest- Part 2”.
I became involved in the politics of the conservation profession in the late 1970s. I was on the committee of the United Kingdom group of IIC (IIC-UKG) when, against Norman’s advice, we decided to follow the example of the American Group and become independent of the parent body. I became vice-chairman and then chairman of the newly formed United Kingdom Institute of Conservation (UKIC).
The next time I spoke at an IIC congress was in Melbourne in 2000. The title of my talk was “Developing Professional Uncertainty”. I eventually let ‘uncertainty’ take over my life. In 2019 I spent three months at the Getty Conservation Institute researching the subject, and later that year signed a contract to write a book on the effect of uncertainty on decision-making in conservation.
In 2002 I was flattered into putting my name forward to be Secretary General of IIC, not realising that there would be no competition and that flattery or coercion are the only ways of finding a volunteer for this post. Since I had already followed in Norman Brommelle’s footsteps by being in charge of conservation at the V&A, drinking too much and putting on weight, the step to IIC Secretary General seemed natural enough. I wrote a short piece for the IIC Newsletter outlining my ambitions, one of which was to change the nature of large meetings, away from the historic pattern of catching up with old friends in nice cities around the world, toward a system that might mean more people could afford to attend. I proposed to Council that the subject matter for the next congress was much more important than the beauty and cultural significance of the venue, but was told I had no idea what I was talking about. It took eighteen years, the development of instant video communication and a world-wide pandemic to make the congress more globally accessible.
During my three-year tenure as Secretary General, I oversaw several changes at the IIC office in Buckingham Street. Perry Smith, who had been Executive Secretary since 1973, retired and was replaced by Graham Voce in 2004. I gave the farewell speech when Graham retired at the beginning of 2020. The period 2003-06 also saw the early stages of the introduction of computer systems under the idiosyncratic guidance of Tim Padfield. The timing was such that I was in post for the Bilbao Congress (’04) without having been involved in any of the preparatory administration. In Bilbao I nearly caused a diplomatic incident. At a press conference before the meeting I remarked that conservation was sometimes used as an excuse to deny politically sensitive loan requests. This was reported in the local newspaper next day as the expert saying that Picasso’s Guernica painting was fit to travel from Madrid to the Basque country.
I was involved in the enjoyable stages of preparation for the Munich (’06) Congress; the trips to inspect the venue, the sites for the evening festivities and road-testing the day trips. But I had retired before the hard work of the actual event. I had, however, acted as chair of the technical committee selecting papers for the conference. It was in that capacity that I was invited to hammer the tap into a barrel of beer at a ceremony during the congress dinner. I was told that an expert should be able to complete the job with one blow. I needed three strikes, and beer spurted all over the place. I had been instructed that when the job was finished I should cry out “O’zapft is!” (roughly translated as ‘it is tapped’), which would be the signal for the drinking to begin. I was so flustered by my ineptitude that I forgot this and had to be pushed back on stage to make this traditional declaration. I have since read that one mayor of Munich needed 19 blows with the mallet to achieve what had taken me a mere three.
To bring my entanglement with IIC up to date, I chaired the technical committee for the London (’08) meeting, but after that I didn’t attend another biennial congress until Turin (’18). The subject matter was preventive conservation, organised with the aim of showing how the field had progressed since 1994. It left me thinking that progress can be very slow and not always desirable. At the 2018 AGM, the notion of Special Interest Groups was discussed. This resulted in me joining forces with David Scott to form the Authenticity and Ethics group. There are very few postings from this group on the IIC Community pages. The “Philosophy” symposium at the end of November, organised by David, is the first real sign of any activity; progress can be very slow.
Jonathan Ashley-Smith studied chemistry to post-doctoral level at the universities of Bristol and Cambridge. He started his conservation career in 1973 at the Victoria and Albert Museum and has worked as conservator, conservation scientist, manager, teacher and research supervisor. He was visiting professor at the Royal College of Art 2000-2010.
(See all the images and read the article in the special 70th anniversary issue of "News in Conservation" December-January 2021, Issue 81, p. 69-71)