Monday, February 7, 2011

When Does Restoration Go Too Far?

We've watched American Restoration on the History Channel a few times.  The premise is that someone brings their old rusty treasure to the American Restoration shop and for a (pretty steep) fee, get a bright, shiny restored treasure in return.  Due to my museum and preservation background, I'm on the fence about what I think of this show.  On the one hand, most of the objects brought in are in such a decayed state that they are unlikely to be used or displayed as is.  On the other hand, when the objects are restored, their original finish, details, and parts are often lost.  Are these really the same objects anymore?  Does it matter?

An extreme restoration example is the USS Constitution, also known as Old Ironsides.  This ship was launched in 1797 and has remained commissioned ever since.  Now think about that for a moment.  This wooden-hulled ship has been in the water for 213 years.  Do you think any ship could really stay afloat 213 years without some work being done?  What about the ropes and sails?  Seems like they would rot in the elements, yet the ship sails periodically.  Today it is estimated that through the ship's many repairs and restorations, only 10-15% of the original ship remains.  The rest of the wood, rope, sail, copper, cast iron, and other materials have been replaced.  The ship is still accepted to be the USS Constitution, but if 85-90% of the materials are new, is it still the USS Constitution?  Does it matter?

What about a Ford Model A found in a barn, unused for 40 years.  All of the parts and the paint are as they were from the factory.  Someone comes in, gets the engine running, buys reproduction tires for it, drives it away, and uses it as it was meant to be.  Contrast this with the automobile connoisseur who takes the same Model A to a restorer, gets a shiny new paint job, a factory perfect engine, whitewall tires, loads it in his car carrier, and wins prizes for its perfection, but never, ever drives it.  Or the hotrod fan who takes the same Model A, chops down the frame, replace the engine, brightly paints it with a flame job, and can drive the car on the interstate.  Are these all really the same Model A anymore?  If the vehicle is still being used, rather than rotting away in the barn, does it matter?

In a museum or at auction, an object is usually worth more if it is in it's original state.  Strip down and refinish that Chippendale chest or replace the glass in that Tiffany lamp shade and it loses value both for the museum visitor and the collector.  These aren't the same objects anymore.  And it does matter.

We tend to be more tolerant of changes to buildings or hold them to a different  standard.  Perhaps it's their longevity.  Roofs have to be replaced, plumbing and electricity added or upgraded, and walls and exteriors painted.  We still consider the building to be the same building despite these changes.  Fix a rotted sill, add a portico to the front or a wing to the side, and it is still the same building.  Lost details may be replaced, old paint scraped to make a smooth surface for new paint,  floors sanded and refinished, and reproduction wallpaper added.  Perhaps because a building is more of a living being, it matters less that the original finishes have been lost as long as the building looks the same. 

So what about the objects they restore on American Restoration?  Is that okay?  I'm still not sure.  But maybe it doesn't matter as long as the owners are happy with their newly restored objects.

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