Kevin Ammons: Welcome to the Preservation Technology Podcast. The show that brings you the people and projects that are advancing the future of America’s heritage. I’m Kevin Ammons with the National Park Service’s National Center for Preservation Technology and Training. In this edition of the podcast, we join NCPTT’s Anna Muto as she speaks with John Watson, Instruments Conservator and Associate Curator at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Today they will discuss the special considerations of conservation when artifacts remain in use.
Muto: Hello John, thank you for joining me today.
Watson: It’s my pleasure.
Muto: Why don’t you tell me a little about your background. How did you move from a music degree into instruments conservation?
Watson: Well, I got interested in harpsichords when I was in undergraduate school. And actually, by the time I graduated I was starting to make instruments and did so professionally. But my “apprenticeship”—quote –unquote—was actually from the historic instruments themselves. I was treating them as primary documents. They were showing me in all the surface evidence how they were made. So from the beginning, I really started to think of artifacts from the past as being mentors more than just old things needing repaired and used. So that, I think, has affected my whole career since then. I did, as an instrument maker, do some restoration. Unfortunately, conservators rarely really specialize in things like musical instruments and they need a kind of treatment that usually requires the expertise of instrument makers. And so it was really as an instrument maker that I was first approached by museums from time to time to do restoration work, including in 1985, Colonial Williamsburg. I restored an 1806 grand piano for them. A couple of years later a position opened up and I’ve been here ever since.
Muto: In addition to having the knowledge of the instrument, are there other specific advantages that your music background offers in your current work as both conservator and curator?
Watson: Although I’m responsible for a bit more than musical instruments—I also have responsibility for clocks and scientific instruments and so forth—the vast majority of my work is with musical instruments and therefore the constituency is musical instrument players and enthusiasts of various kinds. And I’m able to work with the musicians having some understanding of their world and their language and their perspective.
Muto: As you mentioned, you’ve work for Colonial Williamsburg for over twenty years. What are some artifacts that you especially enjoyed working with?
Watson: Well, during the first seven years of my time here, I was actually just half time at the museum and the other half time I was still an instrument maker. That allowed a really ideal kind of circumstance where an instrument that had never been restored but which we really wanted to hear—it was a situation where I could actually make a reproduction of it. And that’s an interesting act of conservation as far as I’m concerned, where the traditional alternative would be to restore the instrument to playing condition. And in the case of three instruments during that time period, we were able to leave the original instrument, with all of its original parts that normally would have to be replaced during a restoration. We were able to leave them in place and use that evidence to make a very accurate reproduction. So three of the instruments in our collection have reproductions that are also in our collection and getting daily use. And that’s particularly satisfying—not only speaking as an instrument maker, or former instrument maker, but also as a conservator. It’s a way of having your cake and eating it too: being able to do a virtual restoration through making a reproduction. And also never causing any kind of loss or wear and tear on original material.
Muto: That’s a very interesting approach. So John, we know each other because in 2009, I conducted a project researching tannic acid treatment for corroded iron in your instrument conservation lab. You mentioned sometimes conserving instruments and needing to replace or treat parts of them. How did the tannic acid research tie into your work as an instruments conservator?
Watson: Well that’s a good example. And I have to thank you once again for the work you did for us. One practical use for it, for me, has been: in a keyboard instrument you have tuning pins holding iron wire. The tuning pin, of course, is embedded in one end in wood. And the normal way of having to treat this would be to take the tuning pin out of the wood and unwrap the wire and do whatever the treatment is going to be and put it all back together. The problem with that is that there’s really preservation-worthy evidence, even in the way the wire’s coiled around the tuning pin. And by being able to leave it all together, even still in the wood, and treat it with something that is not damaging to the wood and doesn’t require a more intrusive cleaning of the tuning pin and string, we’re able to leave it all in situ and protect that workmanship. That’s a very practical use of tannic acid for us.
Muto: Take me briefly through the steps you follow when you’re conserving a historic instrument that comes into your lab.
Watson: Well, one of the first things we have to do is to make a determination whether it is an instrument that can or should be put in playing condition, or should it be left as made exhibitable, or as a third option, actually stabilized in its current condition which may not even be exhibitable but is worthy of the study collection. So those are really three very different levels of intervention. The next thing we look at is what in the instrument is at risk during restorative conservation. For example, I have in the lab right now a spinet, a member of the harpsichord family, from the early eighteenth century and it has a lot of original parts that if we restored the instrument, they would have to be replaced. They simply are not durable enough. They don’t represent their original state enough for the instrument to sound right. They would have to be replaced. But the instrument is much too important historically to be replacing parts like that. So that’s an example of an instrument that’s going to be stabilized in its current state and not restored.
Muto: You bring up the interesting kind of push-pull of conservation, especially for something like a musical instrument. And actually, your recent book Artifacts in Use addresses some interesting challenges in conservation using pipe organs as the case study. Tell me a little bit more about the special considerations that you take in conserving an artifact that may not be displayed in a museum, but instead may be in use after conservation.
Watson: The biggest problem in working with instruments of that kind is that the skill set needed for conservation and the skill set needed for making a pipe organ work are really very different. In fact, they’re almost mutually exclusive. Simply because for me to be a good conservator, that’s pretty much a full time, life-long endeavor to learn those skills. And a pipe organ maker—the same thing. For a person to have conservation skills and pipe organ making skills both is almost impossible. And so the best option is, of course, a collaboration where these two very different specialists actually work together and combine their insights and their abilities. That’s the best hope for objects like pipe organs. The problem is these two groups are so very different in their worldview. And so the nature of those values, those different sets of values, have to be analyzed and the common ground explored. And that really was the point, and the goal, that I had in writing the book Artifacts in Use.
Muto: That sounds like a very valuable pursuit and the kind of dialogue that needs to be happening for these artifacts. What are examples of some other artifacts, other than the organ case study, that might find fuller meaning in continued use?
Watson: There are objects that many people, at least, believe should be used—even for their own sake, for the purposes of preservation. I think of, certainly, other types of musical instruments, stringed instruments especially. Also clocks and transportation vehicles—old cars, that sort of thing—are very often restored by people who feel that that is true preservation to put them back into use. But to some, even those should be preserved as historical documents and not subject to restorative alterations. And that’s our attitude here at Colonial Williamsburg, even about clocks. It’s not that old clocks should never be used, but it has a lot to do with what we see our role to be in society. Our responsibility is to preserve this historical evidence for the future.
Muto: That brings me to my next question. Are there risks in both restoring a historic instrument or a historic object, and are there risks in then using it?
Watson: The wear and tear is the main thing—not only in the using of the artifact, but in the maintenance of it and the restoration itself. Restoration itself causes us to lay hands on an object sometimes in a relatively intrusive way. And if you think of the surfaces as being a document, with not words, but physical evidence that can be read like words telling the history of its making and its early use, restoration itself erodes that evidence and so does use. But there are some artifacts, though—they have to be used. Otherwise, they’re totally not understandable. And one obvious one that I don’t think anyone would argue with is architecture. And even really paintings and some of the fine arts. Another interesting example is even to think of something like historic gardens. All of these things are part of the material legacy and they all demand a really kind of different approach to their preservation.
Muto: Going back a little bit to your particular area of expertise, instrument conservation, I know you mentioned that the surfaces of an instrument can contain valuable data—from tool marks left during manufacture to the subtle history left on the aged surfaces. You mentioned how restoration can somehow negatively affect that. Can the information actually be preserved through restoration? And if so, how?
Watson: Well that’s a really good question. I have become aware of restoration as being a kind of paradox. If you were to graph an artifact’s condition over time, its condition as the maker would judge it. Well over time, the thing deteriorates and it stops working as well and it doesn’t look like it was originally intended to look. That’s a reduction of quality in its condition. So if you are graphing this, the restoration puts it back into a former state and the line that is mapping its condition would go up. The paradox is that if you think of the object as a primary document and you graph the condition as a primary document full of historical evidence, you get to that point of restoration and while the condition in the eyes of the original maker may go up, the line representing the preservation of historical evidence actually goes down. That’s the paradox of restoration. So your question is: is that necessarily true in restoration? Are there approaches to restoration that reduce the amount of loss of historical evidence? And the answer is absolutely yes. There’s a great difference between conventional restoration that’s not particularly aware of or interested in evidence and in their pursuit of newness, conventional restorers tend to really wipe away that historical record. Restorative conservation, on the other hand, is an approach to restoration that’s really very careful to preserve worthy signs of age. It steps over the evidence and it respects the object as a historical document, not just a thing that looks a particular way or functions a particular way.
Muto: That’s very good to hear that that approach is being cultivated. What is your biggest challenge in preserving the historic materials in the instruments while also maintaining the utility of those that you choose to restore to playing condition?
Watson: Well I feel there are ways to merge the goals of conservation with the needs of users. In my case study, in the case of pipe organs, those would be organists and people who enjoy organ concerts and so forth. These two groups of people—conservators and museum professionals who are so interested in preserving things unchanged over time, and those that want to roll up their sleeves and engage and use the thing—are not necessarily incompatible. There’s a common ground. The greatest challenge for these complex objects, like organs and other keyboard musical instruments just to use that example, has more to do with the difficulty of interdisciplinary collaboration between professionals who are so different in their outlook. But it is possible and it’s worth pursuing. That’s really what my book is about: helping professional conservators see the point of artifacts that are used, on the one hand. And on the other hand, the organ restorers who have done it for hundreds of years and are not conservation professionals—to help them see the point of conservation values, be aware of the historical evidence and its importance and its preservation-worthiness and to see ways of stepping over that evidence, getting the restoration job done with the least loss of historical evidence. That’s really what restorative conservation is all about.
Muto: I thank you so much for joining me today.
Watson: It’s been my pleasure, Anna. Very good to talk to you again, and good luck to you and the folks at NCPTT.
Ammons: That was Anna Muto with John Watson. If you would like to learn more about artifacts in use or Watson’s book, visit our podcast shownotes at the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training website. That’s ncptt.nps.gov. Until next time, goodbye everybody.