42nd Annual Meeting – General Session: Engaging Communities in Collection Care – Track B, May 30, "Heritage versus ‘Business of the House’: Conservation and Collection Care at the Houses of Parliament, UK” by Caroline Babington and Lara Artemis.

In this talk, presented during Thursday’s general session, Lara Artemis, the Collection Care Manager for the Parliamentary Archives at the Houses of Parliament, UK, discusses the delicate balance between conservation needs and the ‘Business of the House’ at the Houses of Parliament, in London.  She discusses the innate conflict between the historical role of the Parliamentary Estates buildings and collections, and their function as the seat of government in the United Kingdom (ie. The Business of the House), which takes priority.
Throughout the presentation, Lara walks the audience through the methods by which the Conservation and Collection Care teams were able to greatly increase their presence in the decision making processes at the Houses of Parliament over the last five years.  They were able to achieve this through the active engagement of internal and external stakeholders, by addressing the needs of government (quite literally in this case), by maintaining access to the buildings, collections and archives, and by working and communicating closely with the community.
Ever conscious of her audience, Lara begins her talk by first explaining what is meant by the ‘Houses of Parliament’ and ‘Business of the House’, as they differ significantly in form and function from the American system of government.  In this instance, the Houses of Parliament are situated in the Palace of Westminster, and are made up of the House of Commons and the House of the Lords.  The ‘Business of the House’, as she describes it, includes but is not limited to the creation of Acts of Parliament, and all other activities pertaining to the governance of the United Kingdom.

Palace of Westminster at Sunset
Palace of Westminster – Image courtesy of http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Palace_of_Westminster_at_sunset.jpg

The Palace of Westminster has seen many iterations since its original construction as the primary London residence of the Kings of England in the eleventh century.   Destroyed by fire in 1512 and again in 1834, the current form is heavily rebuilt with the only structure having survived the fires being Westminster Hall, built in 1097 by William Rufus.  The Palace of Westminster has served as the home of Parliament since the thirteenth century.
Today, the Palace is the centre of political life in the United Kingdom, it is an emblem of parliamentary democracy as well as one of the most popular tourist attractions in London.  The Palace has been UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987 and contains historic furnishings, paintings, sculptures and books, as well as original Acts of Parliament and other historic archives (including an original letter from the United States to the United Kingdom declaring their independence!). More information on the collections housed at the Palace of Westminster, including high resolution images can be found at http://www.parliament.uk/about/art-in-parliament/ .
One of the main challenges for conservators working around Parliamentary business is timing, as the conservation team can often only do their work in situ during recess breaks.  For example, the conservation of House of Lords Chamber benches, which have not seen conservation treatment since the 1950s,  must happen around fixed dates, such as the State Opening of Parliament, so as to minimise the impact of conservation work on the operation of the Chamber itself.  Here, efficient and effective communication with stakeholders is critical to ensure that all priorities are being addressed in terms of the needs and costs associated with conservation, as well as any potential disruptions to political business.
Work of the House of Lords
The House Lords http://www.parliament.uk/business/lords/

Another challenge faced by the conservation team is that of visitor/employee damage.  Beyond the more than 7000 people required to pass Acts of Parliament, which include Lords, Members of Parliament, and their associated staff, hundreds of thousands of tourists pass through the halls of Westminster Palace every year.  Conservators must work to simultaneously preserve the buildings and their associated materials and collections, while maintaining accessibility to these same things.
Despite the priority given to the ‘Business of the House’, Lara is clear that Parliament has always believed in the importance of heritage preservation – the issue has been in reconciling Parliamentary priorities with conservation priorities.  In order to place preservation needs higher on the Parliamentary agenda, the Collections Care team has made use of strategic communications and public engagement activities to pique the interests of both internal and external stakeholders. It was Lara herself, upon discovering that decisions were being made regarding heritage access without the presence of a conservator, who invited herself and her team to various events and facilities meetings to remind people of the preservation risks associated with enabling access to historic buildings and collections and giving a voice to conservators working at the Houses of Parliament.  Illustrating their success in communicating preservation needs was the formation of the Heritage strategy and Heritage incident management groups in 2013.  Further, the conservation programs are, today, fully endorsed by the House of Lords, as well as the Commons Administration and Works Committee.
Communities and other external stakeholders have been and continue to be engaged by means of education programs, collaboration and communication.  Their education programs have sought to engage students through school placements and activities with children.  The conservation team has also made use of social media to interact with the public and generate interest.  The conservation of the cast iron roof structure is one such project that the public can follow via social media.
Though Lara was unable to give her talk in its entirety due to time constraints, she did finish with some hints and tips for conservators working in similar environments.  For Lara and her team, success has been predicated upon a foundation of solid communication and outreach mixed with compromise.  She urges conservators to make their voices heard, to ‘speak out’, as she says.  By pointing out the benefits in both the long term and the short term, they are able to ensure that the conservation and collection care message is heard.