Kate Smith

The Rhetoric of Restoration


Responses to damage, loss and decay are historically contingent. As Fred Bearman described it the ways in which historical actors framed their responses to book damage have changed significantly over the last three hundred years. In the eighteenth century, for example, book ‘restoration’ involved the removal of any signs of injuries sustained by books. In this period bibliophiles requested that marginalia be bleached out, marks be scraped off or sun bleached and volumes be rebound. By completing such ‘restoration’ work, collectors hoped to create uniformity among the volumes they possessed. In the nineteenth century, however, such practices lost ground as members of the Arts and Crafts movement came to reclaim early books as historical artefacts. Individuals sort out sound materials and cared for books through practices more akin to conservation rather than restoration. Under the auspices of William Morris, Thomas J. Cobden Sanderson, and later Douglas Cockerell, book conservation as it is understood today began to flourish.

Contemporary book conservation practices rely on working to retain the present character of the book. Rather than removing alterations acquired through time (such as marginalia), book conservators now work to arrest decay and stabilize these historical artefacts. Trying to understand the different shifts in approaches to book conservation underlines the importance of marking how responses to damage and the rhetoric that shapes such responses have altered over time. Listening to Fred’s presentation and later viewing different examples of book that have undergone or require conservation highlighted the importance of gaining a securer grounding in our historical understanding of how individuals and groups have articulated their understandings of mending, restoration and repair in the past.

Alongside these discussions, Celia Pym’s conversation with Fred, which explored how her own artistic practice is deeply embedded within a particular rhetoric of repair, provoked other important questions. What do different societies and cultures choose to repair? What are the pleasures of repair? In her work Celia offers to enact repairs on objects brought to her by volunteers. She uses discussions about the repair work to reveal more intimate stories from individual’s lives. As Celia defines it, these broken objects offer a good way into interesting conversations. In repairing the object, however, other processes come into play. The object is reclaimed and may re-enter the active lives of their owners. Repair might arrest decay or the loss of precious objects, which possess important meanings for their owners. Celia also described the pleasure she derives from repair work – filing in holes, making new sense of objects and achieving completion. Yet while these responses highlight the interwoven nature of mending, repair and emotional engagement they also underline the impossibility of restoration projects. Repair is simply that – it is an ongoing process that merely arrests decay rather than reversing it – repair leads to further repair, a never-ending cycle of work. The recurrent nature of restoration work was particularly cogent in her bedsheet project, which sees her continually repairing an item in her own possession in order to prolong its longevity. Given the nature of such work the question of what to repair is apt. What do societies privilege? What can continue to exist in a restored state? How did historical agents understand the tension inherent within repair work – its attempt at increasing longevity combined with its endless nature?

The ‘Restoration’ workshop raised all these questions and more. It highlighted the conversations that can be had around restoration, the language used and the how, why and when of emotional involvement in such processes. Only through understanding the complexity of such work can historical enquiry grasp at its multivalent nature.


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