Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Reading “Artifacts in Use: the paradox of restoration and the conservation of organs”

Artifacts in Use: the paradox of restoration and the conservation of organs by John R. Watson. OHS Press, Richmond, VA, 2010.

This book is about organ restoration and preservation which seems a pretty big stretch for its contents to be interesting or relevant to what I like to think about. The first half of the book, titled “The Philosophical Foundations of Organ Conservation,” is about using the example of the organ to discuss the underlying philosophy of restoration and preservation – and that’s something I can spend some time with.

The authors’ focus, as the title indicates, is particularly on objects for which there is some expectation of use. You can just look at an organ, but the purpose of the organ, at least at some point, was to be played and make music. The author’s definition of use appears to be human physical interaction. It could be argued that use is also applicable to things like paintings although their use – being in spaces and conditions where humans can comfortably observe them – is rather passive.

The book is a dense, but engaging, and surprisingly quotable book. Watson talks a lot about restoration, and I know that in the academic library conservation world restoration is a bit of a dirty word. I think it need not be. He discusses the spectrum of treatment from restoration which makes values an object’s utilitarian and aesthetic value, to preservation which values an object’s documentary or historical value. He sees value in the middle ground response, which he calls restorative conservation.

What follows is a bunch of quotes, with a smattering of comments. (Sorry if you were hoping for a more disciplined and critical reading.)

“Objects from the past have a dual nature. They are simultaneously historical on one hand, and they are utilitarian/aesthetic on the other.” (p.3)

“The confusion finally begs the question ‘What are we preserving, and why?’ and the various answers have everything to do with values.”(p.3)

The spectrum from [using his terms] restoration to preservation address the spectrum of user needs and object values from use value to documentary or historical value.

With use value “interventions are not preservation of a historical object, but maintenance of a current one.” (p.26)

“Historical value derives the significance on an artifact from its nearness to the historical state without the confusion of restorative reinterpretation.” (p.27)

I really appreciate the author’s recognition of objects through time.  They are not static objects but continually changing and accumulating.

“Artifacts are like recording machines that cannot be turned off. In this way, an old artifact is a palimpsest, with new information continually being written over and perpetually obscuring older information.” (p.12)

“Preservation is stabilization in the present evolved state.” (p.38)

“We can play on a restored organ that Bach once played, but when Bach played it, it wasn’t a three-hundred-year-old organ.” (p.31)

“Conservation exists to preserve cultural heritage, yet paradoxically, one of the greatest agents of change may be conservators and restorers themselves shaping artifacts according to their own values.” (p.29) Therefore, the need to study, and be conscious of our own values.

“From one side of the continuum comes the belief that our use and continual renewal of the artifact preserves aesthetic information, while the other side believes the artifacts to be an inviolable relic of the past that loses evidence when transformed in the name of restoration.” (p.38)

“A corollary of the Paradox of Preservation is that an artifact becomes more vulnerable as our appreciation of it increases.” (p.44) This was where I thought again of digital preservation and whether this concept of artifact is relevant to that world. Digital hardware becomes more vulnerable as we use it, but do files/data become more vulnerable?  A copy of an organ (or even a book) is a very different thing than the organ which was copied, but this is not the case in the digital realm.

Increased use increases the value of an item and increases the likelihood that resources with be spent to preserve the item, but our highly used copy of the 1968 Detroit city directory is not going to be preserved as its own artifact, but through acquiring more copies, and copies on various formats.

“The illusion of an ancient object’s mythical rebirth is deeply satisfying; we seem to achieve for the object what we cannot have for ourselves – immortality itself.” (p.4)

 “Restoration celebrates and nourishes what may be the most profound hope of humanity: regeneration.” (p.46)

“Restoration of an old object is akin to a sacrament in which we replay the ritual of recreation and healing.” (p.46)

“Restoration is what we do for ourselves, and preservation is what we do for our ancestors and descendants. The goal of conservation is for all parties to get their due.” (p.47)

 “The philosophical core of conservation, however, is that the heritage of cultural property transcends the individual.” (p.61)

Watson advocates for restorative conservation which pulls some from both cultures, but does this compromise end up displeasing both sides. Is there not also an argument for approaches across the full spectrum from full restoration, to the most minimally invasive conservation? (A mosaic rather than a melting pot approach.)

Any treatment of an object, whether it is seen as restoration or preservation or conservation, needs to be done with an awareness of and attention to the many diverse meanings of the object and at least a sense of how their intervention might shape future “readings” of that object.

This post isn’t really doing justice to the full breadth of even just this one chapter. As I continued reading I was starting to feel like my brain is full, and I needed more time to process what I had read before I could absorb much more. There is a lot of engaging content. It reminded me a little of reading Muñoz Viñas’ “Contemporary Theory of Conservation” which is a great thing to be reminded of.

I really like this final quote, which is just as much about creation as it is preservation.

“When chisel meets the wood, design becomes a negotiation.” (p.95)

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