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  • Literature Review
  • Rosa Lowinger

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In her 2005 book Repair: The Impulse to Restore in a Fragile World, the writer and philosopher Elizabeth Spelman puts forth the notion that human beings are “repairing animals” engaged continually in a “creative destruction of brokenness”1 that touches upon every facet of human material and spiritual life. Inventively characterizing repair as a spectrum that ranges from the routine (household chores and auto maintenance) to the curative (surgery, restorative justice, and reparations), Spelman uses the work of three different types of homo reparans, as she calls them, to draw attention to the subject’s physical, psychological, and philosophical facets: a mechanic in upstate New York, a restorer of vintage motorcycles, and painting conservators at the Stedlijk Museum in Amsterdam. In exploring the work of the conservators, Spelman makes note of the field’s meticulous concern for keeping close watch on the boundary between the act of creation and that of restoration, and correctly describes this impulse as a means of insuring authenticity, a primary albeit vague value attached to all artistic and historic works. Yet like many outsiders who write about conservation, she sees the preservation of cultural property as a binary pursuit, based, on the one hand, on constrained hands-on intervention for damaged works, and on the other to an extreme hands-off approach to what she terms “oases of disrepair—Babylon, Palmyra, Troy, Angkor Wat, the Acropolis, Tintern Abbey, Machu Pichu. . . . places where H. reparans is persona non grata.”2

Though Spelman’s book is both engaging and informative, framing conservation thusly seems to miss the field’s true goals and aspirations. Indeed, when she notes that “it is not surprising that there doesn’t seem to have been much interest historically in reflecting at length on the nature of repair,” it seems apparent—at least to this practitioner—that her view of our profession is nevertheless anachronistic. For at least within the last few decades, our praxis has been shaped by an understanding that repair is a continuum of activities all of which respond to change over time, and that the most effective preservation takes place in that middle ground between remediation and neglect. Prevention, planning, maintenance, and stewardship issues—all these topics are now as prominent in the conservation literature as are new methods for bonding, cleaning, and consolidation. Understandably, that dialogue is invisible to an outsider such as Spelman. Nonetheless, there is no arguing that our field has shifted in recent years from a paradigm of reactive intercession to holistic stewardship based predominantly on deterrence. Traditional definitions of repair have expanded to include preventive conservation and maintenance of physical [End Page 139] heritage, as well as advocacy and consultation as a reparative instrument in social interactions, all represented in this issue.

As a private practitioner who spends much of her time performing traditional remedial treatments of one form or another, this is a welcome change—with caveats. Handson treatment—especially when it yields dramatic results—offers visual proof of the transformative power of repair. We repair with intent and that intent is the point behind the act. Yet within the greater preservation context this work is often framed as painstaking and overwrought, suitable for museum objects, but only in rare cases for “in the world” heritage such as buildings and monuments, at least in the United States. In most American cities, decision making for historic buildings is primarily the job of architects and engineers. Implementation is generally done by “restoration contractors,” with conservators brought on as-needed to work out unusual technical problems. Preventive conservation, on the other hand, is viewed as an activity that demands a more “professional” approach and therefore makes the case for our participation. And yet as we now reflect on the mid- to late twentieth century’s propensity for nearly unlimited escalation in practice and investment in technical solutions to satisfy and push the theories, we have become aware of the failures brought about by heroic and arrogant interventions. Preventive conservation offers a neutral and open-ended alternative for stewardship as it seeks to remove the interference of direct intimate remedial intervention.

This critical shift toward preventive planning in lieu of...


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