Under Raking Light: Jonathan Ashley-Smith

It’s a challenge, emerging from lockdown into the light — raking light, no less. But we’ve got one conservator who’s fortified and raring to go…

Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Jonathan Ashley-Smith, and for the last quarter of the twentieth century I was head of conservation at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. My LinkedIn profile describes me as ‘Loose cannon and gun for hire’. My business card says I am a consultant and teacher in cultural heritage risk.

If not conservation/preservation, what?
I could probably be a fairly competent book illustrator.

Describe your current project.
I have just completed the document Guidelines for creating a personal statement of ethical practice, in collaboration with the Icon Ethics Task and Finish Group. It was a distraction from my main project, which is writing a book provisionally titled Uncertainty in Conservation: Communicating Risk and Complexity in Cultural Heritage Management. It needs to be finished by Easter 2021.

Ⓒ Diane Ashley-Smith; portrait in background by Ralph Steadman (reproduced with permission)

What keeps you awake at night?
Impending deadlines.

When you tell people what you do for a living, they…
…don’t get a chance to comment, as my wife interrupts: “He’s supposed to be retired.”

What do you think would be an apt anthem for conservation?
Going, Going, Gone from the Bob Dylan album Planet Waves (1974).

What would you write on your conservation gravestone?
‘Died mourning the loss of practical conservation skills.’

Who’s coming to dinner (three, living or dead) and what would be on the menu?
I met all of my dinner guests in the early 1970s when I started in conservation: Norman Brommelle, Garry Thomson and Joyce Plesters. They had all been active in conservation since the 1950s and had achieved international fame. They all had worked at the National Gallery in London at some time. They are all dead now. My aim would be to get them to gossip about other international figures of the time, the development of the profession in the post-war years and the controversies that haunted the National Gallery.

The menu could be quite simple: sea bass with a few lightly cooked fresh vegetables. A crisp white French wine (I would hope that in the afterlife Norman had started drinking again). I like to end a meal with a strong black Brazilian coffee and a glass of red wine.

__________ is the new black.

Where are you on the litmus scale?
Politically, certainly not blue — maybe a bit pink. Definitely a little acidic.

If you could give just one piece of advice to a new conservator, what would it be?
Use your eyes.

What is your favourite museum, library or archive and why?
I was made redundant at the V&A in 2004. On my last day, I walked through every single gallery on the South Kensington site and thought, “This is really a very nice museum — I must come here again”.

Please share the most interesting photo you have taken recently.
This is about coping with the Covid lockdown. My wife is enjoying a real margarita at a virtual Women’s Institute cocktail party.

Ⓒ Jonathan Ashley-Smith

What are your hopes and fears for the future of conservation?
I am on record in print as saying that the conservation profession is in danger of forgetting what distinguishes it from other groups of heritage professionals. That is the ability to make a practical difference; to noticeably improve the usefulness, the longevity and the visual and educational impact of real objects. I have also said that conservation will become so horizontally stratified and vertically segmented that it will never be a powerful or united force. So, not really very hopeful!

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