Restorative Conservation

The argument of conserve VS restore is at the heart of every action regarding our interaction with antique musical instruments, and indeed it starts the day an instrument is produced. We revere the past and hold the present in contempt, or at least take it for granted. I recall the line in ‘Raiders of the Lost Arc’ where Rene Belloq shows Indiana a common pocket watch and reminds him that today it is worthless, but bury it in the sand for a thousand years and it becomes priceless! Wear and tear begins on a piano the moment it is created, and depending on how unique we find the builders’ art to be, we first watch it lose value to next-generation peers, then perhaps stabilize at some low level, then possibly begin to rise as it becomes the last of its contemporaries to survive. The ultimate value it retains will depend in part on how much we want to know about how it was made, and where it fits in history.

Early pianos were produced in their shape and scale for only a little while, to be replaced with ever more powerful instruments. By 1880 the process had largely completed, and today we do not view a piano made at the dawn of the 20th C with particularly more regard than one made 80 years later; they are both used pianos. So with the early piano we have something of a premature fascination, as it speaks in a very different voice, and was made at a time when machine work and an industrial approach were unknown. This has led over the years to much intervention to keep the early pianos working. Indeed, they followed our curve for value and in parts of the world where English square pianos were ubiquitous (like the UK) they were burnt or abandoned in great numbers until perhaps the last half century.

Now that we have seen their worth as windows into history, how shall we proceed? This argument is too important and too complex to resolve in this simple minded web page, but we are fortunate to have some thought leaders who are willing to tackle the subject. I would start with our friend here in the States, John Watson, Curator of Musical Instruments for Colonial Williamsburg, who has recently written a book, “Artifacts in
Use” ‘The Paradox of Restoration and the Conservation of Organs’  OHS Press, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Find it through Lulu:

For bonus materials to the book please see the link Artifacts in Use

Additionally a podcast is available HERE

John has kindly made available a PDF version of a lecture specific to square pianos and this very subject:

Instrument and Document

In conversations with John over the past while, we have touched on this subject as being more of a course of action than “stop, do nothing, or conversely, proceed to return a piano to ‘like-new’ condition without regard for anything but pretty and playable.” In his own words John puts it all this way –

Artifacts in Use tries to explain that it is not (or should not be) a choice between conservation and restoration. Defining conservation as doing nothing is not how it is understood by the professional conservation organizations (on either side of the Atlantic) and yet some people outside of those circles continue to think of conservation/restoration as a toggle switch. The point is that where restoration is necessary, the work can be guided by an awareness and respect for historical evidence, and that the methods we use should get the restoration job done with the least loss of evidence. That is a different objective than just simply “putting it right” meaning free replacement of historic surfaces, materials, and workmanship. Contrary to the popular wisdom, conservation is not about doing the work in a gleaming laboratory high in an ivory tower on the corner of a museum, but having a preservation orientation or mindset. Also, it is not just playability that we are preserving, but an incredibly detailed record of the past in the form of tool marks, surface accretions, glue runs, faint scribe lines, and all sorts of other often invisible things that easily get scrubbed away in conventional approaches to restoration. The book is primarily about explaining the what and why of conservation values. It is true that professional conservators have developed a methodology that may be unfamiliar to restorers who have not observed it, but I am convinced that anyone with a preservation-oriented philosophy (or guiding light) will instinctively undertake restorations that qualify as “restorative conservation” whether they have access to a scanning electron microscope or not.”

I have often thought of museum store rooms as sort of a repository for ‘reading’ the history of an object in the language of tools and techniques. John replies –

“The metaphor of museum store room as library reading room is spot on, but speaking as a curator I’m learning that it also comes with some heartburn. I have a reputation on our curatorial staff of taking in pristine (i.e. little altered by restoration) square pianos because of their potential as historical “documents.” The problem is that the number of visiting scholars to examine them is grossly out of proportion to the space and resources required to preserve them. I can count on one hand the number of people who have come to closely examine a square piano over the past 23 years… with fingers left over…on my left hand that doesn’t even have the full complement of digits! So, as you point out, reality pushes museums into collecting and exhibiting the extraordinary and letting the much larger (and to my mind equally or more important) heritage of common historic instruments ricochet about eBay until they end up in someone’s garage workshop. In recent years, historic square pianos are increasingly perceived more as raw materials for making interesting pianos than as historical documents.”

I am one of those garage restorers, with the only hope of legitimacy in that I try to collaborate when possible, document everything I can think to document, and at least produce something in a written form made available to the outside viewer. Using the documentation software we now have available, going forward, perhaps our results will improve, as it guides you to contemplate each action you take. (See the Documentation page in the link for bonus materials HERE)

Is there room for the amateur practitioner of restorative conservation? In the end I think yes, but not before at least a steady diet of reading and thinking about the subject, followed by practice. John’s take on this is –

“You posed an important question: Is there room for the amateur practitioner of restorative conservation? The reality is that professional conservators specializing in pianos very nearly do not exist. That means that much of the physical record of historic piano making practice will live or die in the hands of amateur restorers. The same is simply not true for most(!) other classes of material heritage, old master paintings, to take an extreme example.”

We can only conclude that as amateur practitioners of restorative conservation, we have the duty and obligation to:

               Respect the historical surfaces, imperfections, scribe lines,  etc. and leave that alone which is in itself not an impediment to returning the instrument to a level of functionality required to demonstrate its qualities.

               Document all that we do, and all that we change or add. Too often we try to make the fix indistinguishable from original. The object is not to leave an awkward fix, but to clearly, though discretely, identify a fix for what it is. Often initials and a date in an obscure corner will do.

              Research and use materials that respect the historical times of the instrument, to the degree possible today. The same sheep are no longer raised, the same wood is no longer available, the same wire is never drawn, but we can keep as close as possible by understanding the characteristics and returning to materials that can give us as close an approximation as possible!

In addition to the excellent work of Watson, I would bring your attention to a delightful lecture by Robert Barclay, available for viewing HERE. His PhD thesis which is a very readable book, is available through ABE books and others for a nominal price today.

I would encourage you to give these gentlemen your attention, as the arguments they make are directly relevant to our work with early pianos.

How to summarize? As we approach an early piano, to whatever extent it has the power to teach us about the times, the techniques, and the lives of the builders, we have an obligation to examine and record all we can see. We may sometimes find the better part of valor in NOT returning a particular instrument to working condition, but to leave it for the ages, perhaps making a close copy if possible, and allowing those with resources we can only dream of in the future a chance to complete the work we might have started. But for the everyday work-a-week piano, we can at least maintain a sensitivity to the fact that the revered concept of reversibility is a crutch, and that while we will alter the piano, and impose our values on it, we might tread as lightly as possible.

One Response to Restorative Conservation

  1. andrew Nolan says:

    The situation is worsened when the prospective player of the instrument is a professional pianist, who wants the instrument ‘conceit ready’. Great effort will be made to attain evenness in the action and to reduce action noise by shimming mortises or inserting veneer into cut made alongside mortises. However the amateur musician is more forgiving and easier on the instrument.

Leave a Reply