Material Ontology

By all means, we should preserve our historic… PSYCH! (The Cardiff Gas Light and Coke Building being crushed beneath the Altolusso Tower, in Cardiff, Wales. Photo from the Guardian, 2014)

Nora’s been occasionally helping the local museum community identify the spinning wheels they own: their likely origins, the kinds of fibers they would have been meant to spin, and the things to look for when identifying a new acquisition. And as is true in all museum work, there’s some degree of debate about what constitutes “appropriate” preservation. How much of something can you change before it’s no longer the same thing?

Sure, you can clean a piece of art… unless the acquisition of detritus was one of the artist’s original intentions. You maybe can change a painting’s frame, but you can’t just grab one from Michael’s. If the varnish is cracked on a piece of furniture, you can probably try to clean it, but you can’t sand it down and throw some polyurethane on it, even though it’s a more durable material and the table would be better protected.

A lot of historic preservation in architecture is what I think of as taxidermy: we save the skin, fill it with a modern building, and stick a pair of glass eyeballs in it. What part of a building deserves to be preserved? Just the facade? Or the plumbing? Or the original interior walls? Should we put an elevator into a building that never had one? Should we keep storing hay for the police-wagon horses on the second floor? It’s easy to chase questions of preservation down to silly extremes, but the underlying question is always the same impossible, ontological dilemma: What, exactly, is the nature of the thing? What parts of the thing must remain part of the thing if it’s going to continue to be the thing? At what moment in the thing’s development must it be locked into place and not further changed?

Sometimes that question doesn’t matter at all. There are some car restorers who want to verify the exact original part of every element of their restoration, building a sort of archaeological record of what came off the assembly line. On the other end, I’ve long been a fan of car customization, in which whatever Detroit provided is merely inspiration for what could be.

This is NOT what a 1952 Chevrolet Styleline looked like in 1952. Photo by Mike Basso for Car Kulture DeLuxe magazine.

This car was completely reimagined by the brothers Yoshi and Kyohei Sakuragi and bodyworker Gene Winfield, to capture a love of curvature and solidity, and to hearken back to the late 50’s and early 60’s origins of “kustom kulture.” You could put it into one kind of museum as an exemplar of creativity and craft, but you couldn’t put it into another kind of museum as an historical record of auto production. So what do you want the thing to be?

One of the few books I’ve kept from my former academic interests is Preserving Cultural Landscapes in America, a book of essays that were edited together by Arnold Alanen and Robert Melnick. One essay by Richard Francaviglia offers a classification system for understanding what he calls “heritage landscapes,” but which we can use to think about any kind of historic object.

  • There are the passively preserved, “preserved unintentionally through continued traditions of use, ownership, and design.”
  • There are the actively preserved, “consciously preserved to retain their historic heritage or charm.”
  • There are the restored, “in which significant historic features have been reconstructed or replaced (or later intrusions removed) to enable them to regain their original character.”
  • There are the assembled, “in which historic designs and historical features are constructed to achieve a look of antiquity.”
  • There are the imagineered, “designed to appear historic but reconstructed to convey essence rather than re-create particular locale.”
  • There are the imagically preserved, “images, models, or dioramas that recreate vanished landscapes for viewing rather than entry.”

Most of Nora’s wheels are either passively preserved, rescued intact from someone’s mom’s house, or restored, with broken parts rebuilt from materials similar to the originals (like using cow or deer bone to make the bearings rather than nylon). There’s no pressure to modernize, to install stainless steel parts for increased production, so it’s easy to keep them more or less original. But sometimes, in order to get the machine to run at all, you make do: building a spindle harness from a leather belt instead of braided corn husks, for instance. It’s a little thing, but in some circumstances, little things matter.

In re-enactor culture, the question of material authenticity is a constant. Coming to a Civil War re-enactment with your contemporary Browning rifle wouldn’t do: the Browning company didn’t even exist until the 1880s, much less that particular instrument. Participants would be discouraged from bringing a polystyrene cooler filled with machine-made ice and canned beer. But lots and lots of re-enactors go beyond that. They make their own woolen underwear, forego their contact lenses in favor of glasses appropriate to the 1860s. But even that is about visual authenticity. Do they leave their Lipitor at home? Do they no longer get to participate once they’ve had a knee replacement or a composite-resin tooth filling? How about if they’ve studied contemporary sociology, and simply know things that wouldn’t have been known at Appomattox? Where do we quit?

It’s all about intentions. Do we intend to recreate an 1810 object in its precise detail? Or do we want to use it every day, and thus accept some improvements? And what level of imprecision becomes immediately noticeable and regrettable, like the photo at the top of today’s post? I mean, SOMEBODY approved that. A whole bunch of them, actually, the developer and the design firm and the local building council. So what were their intentions, and who are we to judge them?