Article by John Watson with Robert Barclay for

Groves Dictionary of Musical Instruments

2nd edition, published by Oxford University Press 2014

Restorative Conservation

Formerly, instrument restoration and conservation were felt to be largely antithetical, the former serving mainly the desires of performers and dealers, the latter the interests of museums and historians. Restorers were normally trained through apprenticeship in instrument-making and repair, while conservation training stressed analytical methods and documentation. Since the 1970s these attitudes began to be reconciled, and today an integrated approach, designated ‘restorative conservation,’ is increasingly accepted. Historic instruments that are maintained in playing condition must be given enough durability for vigorous handling, requiring more intervention than non-playing examples. Restorative conservation emphasizes preserving material evidence as much as it does returning the instrument to a past state. Restoring physical characteristics potentially puts at risk the integrity of the instrument as a truthful artifact of a past time and place, as new workmanship and conjectural reconstructions overlay the old. A conservation-minded approach to restoration involves protecting incidental surface marks and other evidence of construction processes that tend to be lost during conventional methods of cleaning and surface renewal.

Restorative conservation means selecting the most effective and least intrusive treatments from multiple options. The more options at the restorer’s disposal, the more likely one will be found that serves both preservation and restoration needs. The number of options available for consideration depends on familiarity with the materials and methods of both conservation and instrument making. It also depends on thinking creatively and considering innovative treatments that adhere to conservation principles.

During restorative conservation, historical but damaged components are either repaired using targeted and additive methods, or if they must be removed, they are documented and saved for future study. Treating a degraded surface finish with supplementary coatings, rather than removing the old finish, is an example of an additive treatment. Acceptable signs of age are preserved as testimony of the instrument’s passage through time. Interventions are kept to the minimum necessary, documented, and made detectable in order not to falsify the evidence of original construction. New parts are discreetly dated or otherwise made recognizable upon close examination. This is even more important if old parts are re-used from other historic instruments, as these components tend to falsify all remaining historical evidence when not identified. Restorative work is made to blend with the old for the casual observer but is made discernable on closer examination. While the internal structure of keyboard instruments or the thickness of stringed instrument top plates have often been altered during restorations, original construction and design details, even if judged inferior, are preserved as historical evidence when possible, or documented if alteration is unavoidable. Past alterations are evaluated for their historical importance and may be retained or at least documented during restorative conservation.

The concept of reversibility appeared in the professional conservation literature in the 1960s and is still adhered to in some senses today. While it remains as a worthy goal, reversibility is rarely if ever possible, and use of the term leads to overconfidence that such treatment will have no affect on historical evidence. The term removability has come to be used where materials are applied during treatment, because this term admits of degrees; a substance applied to a surface can be more or less removable.

An instrument containing important evidence that would be lost during restoration and subsequent use might serve musical and historical interests best by being preserved in a stable but unplayable state. Such evidence can be in the form of tool marks, layout lines, deposits of glue and other substances used during construction, and witness marks (such as surfaces worn or dirtied during playing or tuning, outlines left by now-missing elements, and layers of redecoration) left from past alterations or use. An instrument that preserves this information intact, thus indicating how the instrument was made and employed, can inform the making of accurate reproductions much in the way that an archived music manuscript serves as an inviolable primary source for facsimiles and scholarly editions.

The dual nature of an unplayable, decayed, or distorted instrument presents a paradox that prescribes opposite and compelling approaches for the instrument’s treatment. The utilitarian or musical nature urges full restoration for use while the historical nature demands stabilization in its current state. Conservation involves respecting both of these natures. For that reason, conservation cannot be reduced to objective rules. Decisions about treatment require evaluation and critical thinking that takes into account the insights and values of diverse stakeholders. Typically, restoration for use requires musical knowledge and instrument-making skills that are generally not part of conservation training. Collaboration between trained conservators and musical instrument specialists brings together skills and knowledge rarely found in a single practitioner.