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A moment in time or the passage of time?
Snapshot or storyline?
Traditionally, show cars are meticulously kept “original.” They’re supposed to look as though they just rolled off the showroom floor—or maybe they didn’t; maybe they’re still there. Collectors look for the lowest-mileage cars they can find. The highest prices go for ones that were bought new and, perhaps literally, wrapped in plastic, the dealer stickers still on them, and stored for years in a climate-controlled room.
Restorations, too, have tended to pursue “like-new” condition. Worn parts are replaced. Dings and scuffs and faded paint are removed.
Don’t get me wrong—I admire the results of a skilled, committed restoration as much as the next person. I’ll ooh and aah at the 2002 S2000 with nine miles on it. I love watching videos of aircraft at the RAF museums, restored to how they’d have looked in 1940; these are snapshots in time. They allow us to experience, as closely as possible, what someone would’ve experienced in the past, when we weren’t even around.
The price of traditional restoration, though, is that, to achieve that snapshot in time, you have to erase the passage of time. You have to erase the story of that object from the time it was made until the present. As for the 2002 S2000 with nine miles on it, wrapped in plastic—it never was allowed to have a story to begin with.
There’s a newer concept of restoration—I only know about it for cars, but I’ve no doubt it’s bigger than that—based on the desire to preserve the story—the passage of time. It doesn’t mean you leave the object as-is—that wouldn’t be a restoration—but it means you intervene minimally to bring the object to a condition more like original than as-is, but without trying to make it like-new. Some collectors have embraced this, and I think some car shows allow it as an alternative.
The RAF museum at Duxford has a display of a Messerchmitt Bf-109 fighter, in an open, life-size diorama of sorts, that shows the plane as it would have looked right after crash-landing in an English field during the war—except that the restorers decided not to erase the plane’s subsequent history, but to try telling the whole story in one static display. So, on one side, the plane is restored to its in-service, flying appearance, with proper lettering and paint and no damage. On the other side, it’s rough. After it was recovered by the British military, the plane was put on a flatbed and used as a war-bond-drive attraction—in North America. If you bought war bonds, you got to sign the plane. All those signatures are still on it. Damage incurred in the crash and afterward was left intact. No paint was restored. And the propeller is still buckled, and the plane sits in furrows of earth, reproductions of the ones it would have plowed when it belly-landed eighty-some years ago.
In art and artifact conservation, the overriding principle is similar to the Hippocratic oath taken by new physicians: “do no harm.” In recognition of the passage of time into the future, conservationists do all they can to make sure their actions are reversible; that they do not alter the object or work in such a way that someone couldn’t later undo it. That doesn’t mean someone would want to, let’s say, throw an iron anchor back in the ocean and let it be re-covered in accretion, but it does mean that they take pains not to alter the anchor itself. There’s a recognition that, in all likelihood, future conservationists will develop techniques different from, or perhaps better than, ours, and we should not preclude their opportunity to use them.
You can see that, with that concept guiding me, I’d be less likely to, say, tear out an old, rusty exhaust system and replace it with an exact shiny new replica. If I did, I’d need to keep the old one, and display it with the vehicle, with a caption that said “original exhaust” or something like that.
These aren’t easy calls; both approaches yield desirable, but different, results. In general, the best candidates for the less-drastic restoration approach, the one that preserves the story of the object through time, are those that have not suffered serious degradation. An anchor that looks like a misshapen piece of coral and concrete doesn’t tell us much. A burned-up hulk of a 1938 Packard just tells us that a fire happened to a car. The 109 at Duxford was left with damage and wear that doesn’t obscure what it is and what it had to say to the people who saw it during the time for which it’s being interpreted by the museum—the war of 1939—45.
When we went to our first Carolina Jaguar Club Concours this past summer, they had two categories of cars you could show in: the traditional “show car” one, where a lot of the entries were brought in in covered trailers towed by pickups, and the “drivers” one, where you showed the car you actually drove around in—maybe not every day, but you drove it—and not just to the show. Some of these looked—to me, anyway—like show cars; they were immaculate. Gorgeous. But I liked the others just as much—the ones with 100K on them, lots of creases in the seats, maybe a couple of minor repairs to be done, plenty of highway stone chips in the front air dam. These cars have stories, and their owners, relaxing in beach chairs next to them until you come up to look around and talk, are happy to tell them. They’re a lot more engaging than your average placard in a museum, too.
Studying material culture is an attempt to learn everything we can from tangible objects, whether old or new. Who made this? Why? Why did they make it the way they did? What does that tell us about them? You’re studying people when you study their stuff. Stuff has stories to tell. Sometimes we tell those stories in snapshots, and sometimes we need a long storyline.
If you have a story-of-stuff from your own life, feel free to share if you want. If we get a few, I’ll compile and publish them here.
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