IAQ 2000, Presentation 20:

Agnes W. Brokerhof

Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage (ICN)



Listening to presentations on conservation research in the UK and hearing the remarks about funding, the UK seems to be familiar with a situation that we in the Netherlands are slowly getting used to. Conservation research in the Netherlands grew up in a protected environment of government funding and only the last decade one can see a change in attitude due to a change in funding.

Contrary to the UK, The Netherlands is a rather small country with a rich history and a high density of cultural institutions. Distances are short, both travel distances within the country and distances between people. It is a small world and lines of communication are short. This has favoured the development of a central conservation research facility to support all the museums, archives and libraries in the country. Early '60s the Central Research laboratory (CL) was founded which in 1997 integrated into the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage (ICN); a government funded organisation, drawing its money from the 'culture' budget.

During the '60s thru '80s conservation research was a centralised affair, based on primary funding, the CL providing its services to museums free of charge. Museums themselves did not really have the facilities to do laboratory research; they were the partners and clients. Money was guaranteed and there was a great degree of freedom in selecting topics and time frames for carrying out research projects. In those days there were some other research initiatives, mostly university projects, which drew their primary funding from the 'Science and Education' budgets.

The move towards efficiency and the cutbacks of the late '80s, early '90s brought a change in attitude and in funding in the entire science world. At the same time 'arts' and 'conservation' became fashionable topics that worked well to interest financers in research projects. Meanwhile, the profession had developed and the awareness had grown.

In The Netherlands we have the National Science Foundation, the organisation which awards extra research funds based on a system of peer judgement, especially for more fundamental research. Research institutes that already had a history with this funding body picked up the study of the arts and conservation as topics to carry on their work. Cooperation between university science institutes and museums came to existence of which the MOLART project is probably the best known example. The CL and ICN are not directly eligible for these funds as the research is too applied, yet we can participate in projects.

Another source, becoming available after 1993, was the EC which did offer opportunities to fund conservation research, promoting international efficiency through cooperation accross the borders. Conservation science also found the way to tertiary funding. The concept of sponsoring was discovered. Industry became interested in funding or providing services for art research and conservation science. Examples are the Rembrandt Research Project (sponsored by DSM) and Shell's involvement in the technical examination of art works with SEM.

If we look at some figures of the past five years the change in funding of conservation research in the Netherlands is quite distinct. The CL in the past and the ICN nowadays have about 30 people working in conservation research: study of historical and contemporary sources, of material degradation, developing methods for conservation, diagnosis and consultancy in situ, collection management advice. While 5 years ago conservation research was funded 100% by primary sources and staff was mainly employed on permanent positions, it now is funded for 25% from secondary and tertiary sources with about 25% of staff on temporary contracts.

Staff I 4.0     4.1 3.8
Material I 0.4     0.2 0.1
  II -     0.5 0.7
    -     0.2 0.3
  III -     0.33 0.45
Total   4.4     5.03 5.75
% primary   100     80 75

Table 1: A rough estimate of funding of conservation research in The Netherlands (in million DFL; 1 Euro=2.20 DFL)

These developments have some implications that become slowly visible, some of which are positive, others perhaps less so. The new financers want results for their investments and projects have become more outcome oriented. The number of players has increased, making the competition tougher. At first sight this may look as a drawback as the chances of projects being awarded decrease, but it has the positive spin off that the quality of the proposals has grown with the years. Yet again, with the wider interest, the content of projects has become more diffuse. The diffusivity is also promoted by the development of the profession, which urges us to dig deeper and look in a wider perspective, and the technology drive behind projects.

One of the hidden dangers of the change in funding is that the increased external funding does not provide arguments for increasing the primary government budget. In a traditionally non-commercial field it is exactly that budget that guarantees continuity. Permanent staff of our institute are paid for by the primary budget which also covers the basic material needs. The increase of research capacity comes from project funds. Our conservation science department for example has grown about 25% in the last years, matching the increase in budget. These new, young, enthusiastic scientists are working on temporary contracts. That follows the trend towards a flexible working force but it worries me because conservation science is taught on the job, there is no specific training program, at least not in The Netherlands. When the projects finish and money runs out, the young conservation scientists either have to get a new project or try to find permanent employment elsewhere, taking the expertise with them. So, as a centre of excellence, which we want to be, we have to ensure that we store their knowledge, but much rather we would like to keep the people as well because they have grown into the team.

To guarantee continuity new projects have to be brought in on a regular basis which carries the risk that projects are designed for the sake of the project rather than the relevance of the research. If you want to stay in the game, you are almost forced to design big projects, large cooperations, politically correct, which may be a challenge to some, but are usually a monster to those who want to roll up their sleeves and get to work. I do not say that big projects do not generate new knowledge, but keeping in mind the demands of the conservators and restorers we do it all for, we need to deliver practical results and applicable solutions to their problems as well. It has to do with the balance between operating pro-active or re-active. When our institute worked pro-active, pioneers in the field, it was urged to become more re-active, responding to the demands of the museums. While now, with the move towards finding alternative funding, the risk exists of drifting off towards being too pro-activite again.

At our institute another development took place as well. With the semi-privatisation of the state museums, the free of charge service, which had always been taken for granted, disappeared. The more commercial way of thinking even made it to our institute. We now have the policy that research which tries to find solutions for general problems and gains general knowledge is carried out at our own expense; investment in knowledge. But research that is a direct consequence of a problem in a particular collection, short term contract research, is charged for, be it still highly subsidised. That way we generate a tiny bit of extra revenue to do a bit extra, go to a conference. Not too much, a few percent tops, because we do not want to scare away the customer with a high cost threshold.

Most of these developments are irreversible but do not really form a threat for the relevance of conservation research as long as we realise what we are doing and why. It has everything to do with knowing ones core-business. I am of the old school that believes that conservation research bridges the gap between more fundamental studies and the conservators/restorers with their problems. Transforming the question into research, translating results into applicable methods and useful advice.
Nowadays, conservation research cannot rely on primary funding alone, we need a bit of pragmatism and creativity to generate those extra funds required in an expanding research field where development goes hand in hand with the need for expensive equipment. The quest for that pot of gold is going to require more of our precious time, but at least there are pots to be found! However, we have to stay in close contact with those for whom we gain our knowledge, to prevent us from drifting away with the flow of the big bucks.

Agnes W. Brokerhof
Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage (ICN)
Gabriel Metsustraat 8
1071 EA Amsterdam
The Netherlands
Tel: (+) 31 20 3054729
Fax: (+) 31 20 3054700
Email: agnes.brokerhof@icn.nl

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