- 1 The use of the term ‘nostalgia’ in the title is not intended to be deprecatory but simply means an (...)
1Dilemmas and choices are constant elements in conservation, and compromises are rarely good solutions. The dilemmas occur because of conflicting requirements of the future use of the artifact and its documentary or symbolic value.1 Choices have to be made, but they are frequently irreversible, and at least they make the path of the future 'life' of the artifact deviate from that, which would occur with a different choice. A compromise is a very human way of navigating, but the future will then need two lines of attack to extract information from a given restored artifact, because it represents an 'in-between'. The present author argues that the considerations deciding on a course of action ought to basically be founded on the same fundamental principles of approach irrespective of the type of artifact that is considered.
2A simple example will demonstrate the types of choices that need to be made. A museum has accepted an automobile workshop with one broken-down car from 1930 and a full set of tools as well as original spare parts in original, sealed boxes. It is desired to restore the car. The whole collection consists of as many artifacts as there are parts, but if an original spare part is taken out of its box and used in the car, that artifact has ceased to exist in its original context. It is now part of a different context (and an empty box and wrapping paper remain). This context could be said to be 100% probable, but it is from the wrong time – it would have been correct in the 1930s when the car was in its period of utility. And what happens when the lubricant for the spare part is replaced with modern lubricants?
3The proprietor (the collector, museum, landowner, in other words, the requestor) and the conservator need to consider the long-term implications (Appelbaum 2007). There are many restored veteran cars in the world, but very few complete sets of tools and spare parts. Is it best to create yet another car restored to its original looks but containing original parts, or is it best to perform a standard ‘embellishment’ of the broken-down car for exhibition purposes while retaining the original spare parts as the evidence of industrial manufacture and distribution that they constitute? Such decisions require long-term planning, because reconstructing a complete set of spare parts in original boxes is difficult.
4The least dilemmas occur in a situation of repair of the utility of an artifact that is in constant use according to the original purpose. If a tool has been in constant use through generations, it gets worn, and the wear is eliminated by the supply of new materials for the worn surfaces. The traditional example is a hammer that has its handle replaced. A tower clock has its bearing replaced by a patch with a new, calibrated hole. The context of the artifact is that of an item of utility, it is used daily on a continuous basis. There will be few qualms over exchanging a worn original piece of material with a modern piece that has improved performance – the utility can only be maintained or even become better. Repair and maintenance is a skilled activity that present society is apparently attempting to abolish, because trade in replacement with newly manufactured articles is more profitable – for the tradesman.
- 2 It is very tempting to use the broad term 'function' to identify the utility (usefulness), purpose (...)
5What types of utility do we come across in the very broad range of artifacts that at one time or other become a subject for repair? We have seen the simple examples of tools and a clock that both have technical utility. However, the utility may be to provide information – this would cover written or printed texts, certain drawings and paintings, certain sculptures, photographic images, sound recordings and moving images. It may be to represent a spiritual idea – this would cover relics, ritual or religious paraphernalia, and certain sculptures. All these types of utility may be repaired, provided the rules pertaining to their various contexts are not infringed. A very interesting utility is that of being part of a defined collection.2
6The context of an artifact changes substantially when it is made into a part of a collection. There are essentially two kinds of collections – those that are for reference and which are frequently found in the stores of museums, and those that are for exhibition. In both, the previous function or utility belongs to history, to its previous context, and the purpose of the artifact has become to document or display this history. Knowledge about the artifact at the time of accession will be preserved in the form of registrations, and this provides a context. However, upon entry in a collection, the essential context of the artifact is now in the continuum of history. Many dilemmas of conservation are uncovered when an artifact is to move from a store to an exhibition.
7Artifacts that serve in specific contexts as ‘symbolic’ have precisely that as their utility. It is quite feasible to repair this utility, but the verbal and unspoken rules that surround the utility have to be respected. The shiny nose of the boar in Florence or the shiny toe of Saint Peter in the Vatican will both eventually be worn down by the innumerable hands and lips touching them. However, they will have no problem with being considered authentic after skilful replacement, because the tradition does not die or get worn out.
8There is some overlapping in the terms used for certain activities in the field of conservation. If the naïve goal is simply to make certain that the object is available to answer questions at any time in the future it must be stored or preserved, this latter term relating to dedicated storage conditions. As a minimum, the object will be entered in a ledger where the location of the object is combined with text, marking, or numerals identifying it. If we believe that the object will not survive to a sufficient standard in such storage conditions it has to be subjected to a treatment of conservation. If we believe that the object has lost so much information that in future it will not even provide the information that we may now extract from it, it is subjected to restoration. The author is aware that at various times, different connotations have been given to the above terms, but the distinction adhered to here is useful in the present context.
9The essential question is 'what does the proprietor want an artifact to represent?' This means that only one or a few aspects will be emphasised. Concentrating the conservation effort on one aspect only means that a particular feature has been understood with today’s knowledge, and this is the only thing that is guaranteed to be preserved. In the process, unknown features have most likely been destroyed, and at least the balance in the context that comprised such features will have been disturbed. This is admirably demonstrated by Williams, who also coined the expression 'destructive preservation' (Williams 1999: 115, 135-144). To a large extent the ability of the artifact to provide original context will have been destroyed. It has been good scientific practice to build collections of specimens, for instance biological specimens in formaldehyde, to document some observed feature. However, very little else can be obtained from such a specimen at a later date. In fact, for purely demonstrative purposes a wax model of the phenomenon might be just as instructive (Tibbetts 1990), and apart from the sometimes very important symbolic meaning the only difference lies in the context.
10By focusing very much on 'the proprietor' the present text does not discuss approaches to how to determine a 'value' of an artefact (Avrami et al. 2000) or a 'significance' (Mason 2011), because such determinations will mostly be made outside the area of responsibility of the conservator. 'Value' may be regarded as a practical tool for decision making, most fully developed in connection with landscape or architectural conservation, cultural areas that are extremely costly to maintain. These 'artifacts' are so large and costly that their utility, for instance as a housing, is a constant requirement (cf. Smith 2006: 11-34).
11Among the most important attributes that society assigns to an artifact is its authenticity, and the preservation of authenticity is highly desirable (Starn 2002; Henare, Holbraad, and Wastell 2007). In an artifact with a mechanical utility, the authenticity is usually related to the source of manufacture, and the whole intellectual property field of trademarks was developed to enable the correct identification of the manufacturer who takes responsibility for the product, the artifact. In works of art and in artifacts like jewellery the originator is also considered to be extremely relevant. However, it is rarely considered that the mere existence of an artifact creates one type of authenticity: the artifact represents its own presence – its existence cannot be denied. If it is entered into a collection at a specific date and time, then the artifact in its physical state at that moment is representing its own authenticity. In this respect, the authenticity might be considered an intrinsic quality. Any physical action on the artifact will change some aspect of it, and it is our purpose to determine if this has had an influence on its authenticity.
13However, that is only possible when the contributing factors to authenticity have been identified. Prior attempts at defining and delimiting authenticity have referred to the tautological status of the term (Muñoz Viñas 2005: 91-113). It must be admitted that the artifact representing its own authenticity is indeed a tautology. The information content of the artifact has also been used as an argument for authenticity (Brock-Nannestad 2000). Both approaches consider authenticity as an intrinsic property of the artifact. The present approach is based on authenticity as an extrinsic property, it is context-related, and it corresponds much better to the reactions to authenticity in various fields of interest. Only in the singular and rare case where there is no apparent context does the artifact have the intrinsic quality of authentically only representing itself.
14Authenticity is intimately linked to expectations. We expect a banknote that carries all the well-known marks to be authentic, to have the value it purports. And we regard with suspicion an artifact that appears to be too 'new' for its age – is it authentic? Our expectations are only founded in our pre-formed beliefs. Consider the ranking in Table 1 according to the traditional approach to authenticity. In this context, it may also be worthwhile to consider Feilden's degrees of intervention as interpreted by Taylor and Cassar (2008: 9).
Table 1. Decreasing grades of authenticity seen as an intrinsic property
Artefacts are arranged according to the traditional approach to authenticity (greatest on top). The lower two would in most cases not be considered to possess any degree of authenticity. (*As in the Shintu tradition of continued replication).
15What is the structure of authenticity? The artifact as originally identified formed part of a context, which was documented at the time; it is part of the provenance. The artifact restored for exhibition is associated with this documentation, to which is added the documentation of the restoration activity. When it is exhibited, this artifact is considered as the authentic artifact, although it has inevitably been stripped of some of the intrinsic information in the restoration process. This intrinsic information is unknown, but better techniques of investigation may lead future researchers to results that make future restoration processes more transparent. However, in the context of the exhibition, the artifact is fully functional as the authentic artifact, and it is possible to maintain this authenticity by referring to its content of original material.
16The discussion shall start from some very simple concepts of what may be told by an object that is stored for later reference. The objects concerned are those that we as restoration and materials science experts may be called to work upon. For this reason, it is very important to be aware of their properties. In the discussion, an 'ideal' museum person is imagined, one that is aware of the curatorial aspects as well as the preservation aspects. This way, it is not complicated by the lack of communication so eloquently discussed by Appelbaum (Appelbaum 2008).
17First of all, we must take an 'outside' look at our human interaction with objects. What is happening? As humans, we use our senses to receive input from the objects, and this sensory input we shall simply label information. The sensory input is, for instance, related to the colour, weight, and surface texture of the object. The information is used in many ways; it is combined by us to provide a many-faceted impression of the object. The impression may be influenced by the object's surroundings, such as the colour of the light that shines on it, and which we see reflected as filtered by the object. The impression may also be influenced by what we know or believe we know about the object, its context, which is obviously influenced by our cultural pre-conditioning. We may write down our impressions in our language, using concepts that we think will serve us and possibly others at a later time. We may make a drawing of what we think are salient features, and we may make an annotated photograph or video recording.
- 3 If we use the expression ‘the context in which we see this object’ we mean a mental structure of a (...)
18An object always carries or contains information that may be perceived by the intellect, i.e. we may, by the use of any means available to us, analyse it and extract information from it. We sometimes say that we have derived knowledge from the information. Different times may have different interests and access to different means, and so may extract different types of information. By the analysis, we create one particular, but entirely artificial, context for the information – that of being submitted to analysis. However, the usefulness of the object for representing a heritage is considerably enhanced if we are able to put it into a slightly larger context3 that is related to the creation, use, finding, or storage of the object. This is what gives it a historical perspective (Tibbetts 1990).
19Apart from isolated knowledge, an object may have aesthetic qualities that are perceived by a beholder, possibly more un-reflected and immediate than the registration of facts. In an object where we do not know the context related to its creation, use, finding, or storage, the aesthetic quality must be derived from exactly the same elements that individually may be perceived by the intellect: the information. For this reason, we shall use the same term for the input to the aesthetically perceived qualities – defined or undefined – namely the same word information, although these qualities are not interpreted by the analysing intellect but by an unreflected aesthetic sense.
20An example: a piece of rock in a collection may look very pleasing to an observer; it was not created for aesthetic purposes, but was (in the present example) selected for aesthetic qualities. By a quirk of Nature, a piece of flint may have the appearance of a recognizable shape, such as a human torso. If this appears in an art collection, it was perhaps included to bear witness to this strange coincidence; it had curiosity value at the time it was included. However, in a geological museum a microcrystalline structure may have been the focus of interest and the outer shape irrelevant.
21An object selected and collected by a museum or an archive is usually not only acquired for short-term analysis, as in forensic work, but also to fit into a perceived context or storage. There would be no reason for storing the object if it is not expected that a future user will need the information that the object can provide. Above, it was proposed to use the term information not only for objective establishment of fact but also for the ability to function as an aesthetic input, a subjective feeling. The same part of an object may provide both factual input and aesthetic input. For instance, a yellow pigment may not only date an object but also provide the hue that is the originator's intended contrast to other colours on the object.
22Any object selected and collected contains a vast quantity of information, represented by the various combinations of physical properties of each part of the object. We have the potential to create knowledge out any combination of the bits of information. In principle, 'each part' could be as small as 'each molecule', but obviously in practice, the part would be no smaller than the applied limit of detection. We may focus our attention (i.e. work with an elevated resolution) on just a section of the object, not expecting to need such detail for the whole object. One example could be the analysis of foxing in a sheet of paper: frequently, much less attention is given to unit volumes of the paper that are far removed from the spots.
23An object is in itself the largest collection of information and potential for certain knowledge that we can have concerning that object, it only requires that we apply whatever methods of analysis we think appropriate. However, we may be unable to classify and store this information in a meaningful way if we do not have a relevant context for it. The context is merely associated but absolutely necessary information. Caple (2006: 16ff) discusses the information content of an object, and generalises it so that it becomes obvious that the same principle may be used for any manifestation, whether lasting (artifacts, architecture, landscapes) or ephemeral (music). Caple also provides a very broad spectrum of analysis tools and a structure for the information obtained.
24The overriding purpose of preserving an object in a museum or archival context when intended for future perusal is that this object shall tell something to a future user having requests, which are, however, completely unpredictable at the time of storage. Otherwise, the future user would be completely bound by our interpretation of the object (Hill 2006; Lowry and Turnbull 2006). It is our responsibility that it tells the user as much as possible, in other words that it shall provide as many relevant answers as possible to any question that may be put to it. However, there exist objects of worship, in which it is not at all relevant for its intended use to obtain all this information, but rather that the status of the object is preserved. The researcher may have a different view from the believer.
25The object may be regarded as a container of information, but it is not self-sufficient, it must be put in a context. The context is the principle that organizes the information and makes it into knowledge. Theoretically, several consecutive contexts may have to be taken into account. One is the context in which the object was found or the recorded history of the object until it became the care of the collection or museum. Another is the context in which it resides in the collection. A third is the context of the present use, i.e. the expected contribution to knowledge and/or for enjoyment in the museum or archival use situation.
26Once a decision has been made to store the object, a selection of a course of action has to be made. One is to perform active stabilisation of the object or to store it in a controlled atmosphere. In order to be active, those responsible will need to have a model for the deterioration that it is desired to counteract, otherwise it is not possible to devise a way of counteracting it. By focusing on the aspects, which enter into the model of deterioration, only information relevant to those aspects will be found and utilised. All other information is (mostly unconsciously) left out of consideration. Philosophically, this means that the only knowledge that can be preserved is that which is based on information that has already been found, and which could just as easily be preserved by way of a description of that knowledge. A description could include photographs or videos taken of the object, including suitable details. A description could similarly include NMR or similar scans. Such a description is habitually termed documentation (Oddy 1993; Martinot 2009).
27Another imagined example: a specific object is thoroughly documented by the taking of measurements, weighing, and photographing. The object is considered to be a tool, partly due to the context in which it was found, and it is conserved according to this view, ensuring that the qualities that represent it as a particular tool are safeguarded. Quite independently, international research undertaken since the original find discovers that a certain class of tool-like artifacts may in fact be cult objects, provided they carry two series of superficial parallel scratches, and that a particular angle is found between the two series of scratches. Barely visible linear surface markings on the object are indeed discovered on ‘our’ object, but their precise angular relationship cannot be determined, due to deterioration of its, until now, disregarded surface. This is a shame. The object cannot provide this information at this late stage, but one of the photographs used for the original documentation displays an angle between scratches very clearly. It is not of the expected value, however. Fortunately, the conditions surrounding the photographic documentation are themselves well documented and it turns out to be only a simple problem of three-dimensional geometry to correct for the projection angle. This means that by using information obtained in a context totally removed from use or exhibition of the artefact, at the time of documenting the artifact, indeed without any consciousness of a context relating to the original use of the object, it now becomes possible to fit it into an unexpected frame of reference, a natural context, possibly with a global rather than a local interest. The object itself is no longer able to provide this information, and indeed, it barely represents it. The utility selected for it out of context was erroneous, and information has been destroyed in the object. The information exists, however, outside the object.
28Instead of subjecting the object to a treatment, the other extreme is to do nothing with the object, except to keep track of it wherever it is stored. This amounts to letting the object be modified by whatever storage conditions it encounters. The modifications may leave characteristic traces in the object, and it may be possible to determine afterwards what the storage conditions were. This may be a desirable result in itself. The influence of storage conditions considered here is found to a minimalistic and extreme degree in the test colloquially known as the Oddy test for corrosive atmosphere. In this test, an extremely well-documented surface is modified by only an environmental influence. Ordinarily, there will be no part of an object, which immutably maintains a structure of information that documents a particular knowledge at some stage obtained from it. Instead, knowledge about any aspect that has not accidentally deteriorated during storage may be found by analysis of the object as such.
29But, if the fixing in one physical entity of knowledge based on analyses already performed is the only thing a preservation or conservation activity contributes in comparison to just keeping track of the object, what is then the reason for performing any preservation or conservation activity at all? The answer is that the object itself may still be the most concentrated form of storage of some of the information, and at least its appearance and mere existence has a symbolic quality. On the other hand, by performing the preservation or restoration activity, other parts of the information may be modified in the process, removing or destroying any chance of obtaining precise knowledge about the object as it was. In other words, even the improved analysis tools that may be expected from future development will not retrieve what was before the modification. As an aside it should be noted that this is the real basis for the impossibility of reversibility of treatment (Palazzi 1999). Williams has convincingly and frighteningly shown how a whole discipline relying on preserved specimens has suffered from naïve procedures in the past (Williams 1999: 115-16; 133-34).
30Some objects are very, very difficult to stabilise and store, because they consist of incompatible materials. Sometimes the materials are intimately integrated; sometimes it may be possible to separate them. However, separation requires analysis and a re-synthesis when the object is reconstructed, briefly, to re-create the original context for the short-term benefit of a future user. After this use, the materials must obviously be separated again if the object is still to be maintained in the collection. In such cases it may be easier in the long run to analyse sufficiently to obtain knowledge, and then to preserve the knowledge. It will never be better or truer.
31Apart from the utility of containing information, the object in a collection (possibly a recognized museum artifact) has the utility of displaying its materiality, of showing how this object appears to the observer. Or, perhaps, how this object may have appeared to a much earlier observer. The object may be one of several objects that are held together by a shared context. In order to display this appearance, either in its present state or in the state it is believed it was once in, its visual appearance (outer surface), weight, smell, sound and tactile surface all have to conform to a pre-conceived ideal of how these things should be. To some extent we are creating a set piece for the stage - the exhibition, and in some instances, the restorations resorted to are equivalent to taxidermy in the most general sense. The creation of these displays or exhibits is an activity of high intellectual and aesthetic knowledge and judgment, but it must not be thought that the result is an object that will provide as much information as possible for as long as possible about the original utility and the choice of materials and shape that went into realizing that original utility. The two objectives are mutually exclusive; however, the two objectives may be forced to reach a compromise. This should be a conscious compromise, based on analyses, possibly based on Operational Conservation Theory (Brock-Nannestad 2000).
32An example: a couch was entered into a collection, it was apparently from the 1830s; analysis showed it had been modified/rebuilt, but it was intended to form part of a display of a furnished interior (Balfour and Trupin 2000). It was rebuilt to what was considered the likely original appearance, using modern materials wherever non-visible and finished by fastening the heads only of modern decorative brass nails by hot-melt glue. The reason for the modern materials and the glue was that the old frame would be protected from further entry of nails and tacks. The undertaking was reported as time-consuming. What is the balance between display and total information? The display is almost a complete construct, because the appearance is based on an existing, more original couch. This appearance could have been obtained by making a reconstruction. The original frame was freed from traces of later modifications (which were in themselves repair of utility when it was functioning as a couch) and is preserved in this state torn from its original context below the outer, visible appearance. The information and context will be found in the documentation of the project. One might consider that the best reason for the cited approach is that it saves storage space: the outer effigy and the original parts inside share the same volume.
33As we have seen, the only components of the object that can be positively influenced, treated, or preserved are those that we are conscious of. This, however, puts us in the position that the knowledge may equally well be put towards creating a replica rather than working on the object from the collection (Valentini 2010). It should be noted that the wax model mentioned above is not a replica. The outward appearance of the replica will essentially be identical to the preconceived notions of the appearance of the object – that is the whole purpose – but the gain to the museum staff, and thereby to the accumulated knowledge of the museum, may potentially be much higher. If tools are used to create a replica, these tools being designed as tools contemporary with the object, there is a good opportunity for obtaining a bodily experience (Toombs 1993: 53-57) of the act of creating the object in the first place, and it may explain certain features of its design, being demanded by the original manufacturing process. Working on suitable raw materials representative for the time of the creation of the object from the collection would re-create this bodily experience, whereas working on partly deteriorating material from the object would not. A good example is the work taking place at the Viking Ships Museum in Roskilde, Denmark. Here, replica ships are built, based on measurements of surviving parts of wrecks, using tools available in the Viking era, using wood that is aged in a relevant fashion and other re-constructed Viking-age materials. These replicas are subsequently tested in practice. The use of modern tools would defeat the purpose and would only permit the testing of the seaworthiness of the design, not of the imagined result of Viking era construction.
34We have seen that the utility of some objects is to carry surface markings that have a significance. That utility is not modified by storing the object in a museum or an archive. If the markings constitute a text, they must be decoded through knowledge of the script and language. This approach is not dissimilar to Favre-Félix' description in the legibility/readability discussion (Favre-Félix 2009). Once this has been performed, it is quite feasible to separate the decoded text from the original carrier that had the function of carrying the significance. However, this separation may actually occur at an earlier stage, if the surface markings are faithfully copied onto another carrier. However, it is an absolute requirement that the quality of reproduction is sufficient to transfer all necessary detail. In this, the optical and photographical methods that have been used for the last 150 years are infinitely better than the transcribing methods used prior to their development, but not necessarily as durable.
35Other representative artifacts may on one level be regarded as a substitute for the 'real thing', such as a portrait substituting for a person, an image in general substituting for a live view of a scene ('being there') or a sound recording or a sound film substituting for experiencing a live event. On another level, they may be regarded as having the function of storing only intended, edited information, and that function is not modified by storing the artifact in a museum or archival environment. However, sound recordings, together with film, form part of machine-assisted cultural phenomena, in which the artifact is effectively useless without a corresponding machine for accessing it. In parallel to the case of the written word, where the information is effectively useless without the context of the script and language, we here need a machine to translate the contents. To the museum or archive, this means that not only must it provide storage (as a minimum) for the artifact, it must also provide working machines. These must still perform according to their intended function, even if they are in a museum or archival environment. In other words, their utility is not transformed; they are still subject to repair and maintenance of utility that has always been part of their working life. This in practice means that a museum may possess the workhorse that is repaired and maintained in a functional state for decoding purposes as well as the machine as artefact that is preserved with as many of the original parts as possible intact and unused, to demonstrate the original appearance and capabilities of such a machine.
- 4 This is turning into a positive line of action the observation by Ashley-Smith (2000: 15) that app (...)
36The conditions surrounding the finding of the object or its recorded history, as well as the related case of designating a property as heritage provide a context that supports the information taken directly from the object or the property, and it is only thereby that it will provide answers to a broad range of questions. This presupposes, however, that the object is immutable – that it is, at the time in the future when it is investigated, in all respects identical to the object that was collected. For most objects, this is difficult to fulfil, the exception being many minerals and materials based on minerals. Properties are continuously modified by nature. Many of the objects we deal with have been at least conserved and in many cases also restored at some point in their museum or archival existence. Restoration and conservation add information while destroying other information and only some of it is preserved by documentation. This realization provides an argument for a special procedure that may be applied to a collection of apparently identical objects found and stored (until now) under identical conditions: make certain that groups of these objects are treated differently, and leave one group untreated. This will ensure that separate groups of information combinations are created, and thereby a broader range of questions may be answered by the collection as a whole in the future4.
37One may end by asking the question ‘what are we gaining by considering conservation and restoration as repair of utility?’ The answer is ‘simplicity and consistence in approach’. By realising that the aim is to present and maintain a utility of the artifact it is possible to use an approach that permits a feedback from the result, and the result is not weighed against an intangible and unattainable ideal. One could say that the work of the conservator loses some of its ‘loftiness’, but it only intensifies the focus on skill and academic discipline in approach.