" professional advice for sensitive preservation of interiors, buildings and their gardens and landscapes "
Restoration and Preservation of Heritage in the "Dutch" Hudson Valley USA
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Love is the Answer
Well, perhaps not all love - more affection - for place and the things that surround us.
I realize I must provide a context for my broad statement, seemingly void of meaning when considering the subject matter: the historic house museum and its collections.
First, a little background: most historic house museum curators, and in fact all staff, are in the lucky position of being surrounded by beautiful architecture, objects and gardens. Very often the former owner or owners of these sites cared very deeply for the buildings and furnishings. There may have been generations of family members who had affection for the place, beautifying it, making their surroundings better, and thereby creating a pleasant scene for themselves, neighbors and passers-by.
In this way, through the built environment, families and individuals personified both style and substance, and their home was the vehicle through which they expressed both characteristics.
Very often, although museum goers may not realize this, historic sites and gardens can inspire their audience to pursue an aesthetic which will improve their lives, their community and their environment – emphasizing the difference beauty and aesthetics can really make in their lives. It lifts morale, it improves the environment – statistically, children who are exposed to art and music excel in other subjects in school. California designer Barbara Barry once said ‘I live for beauty, and I think everybody needs it. It’s healing, restorative and essential to our well being.’
Victorian-era sites are especially relevant in this respect. The era’s aesthetic movement – preserved in the many Victorian-era historic house museums sprinkled across the United States - might encourage visitors to surround themselves with beauty, or what they consider pleasing to the eye, in their homes and gardens. William Morris advised: ‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.’ It is possible to have both functions. When visitor’s see a restoration’s grandeur (what has been preserved is often grand, but this is changing), they often make comments about the cost of the objects, the house, even the insurance to protect it all. Many do not believe they could ever manage to have such a residence or such possessions. Morris agonized over this during the height of the aesthetic movement, wondering how to bring beauty to those who could not ‘afford’ it. His agony was short lived, as the Arts and Crafts and, a bit later, Bauhaus movements were imminent and ready to deliver beauty in everyday objects.
Historic house museums’ interpretation does not have to emphasize possessions or wealth, but more individuals making their life better by loving their surroundings and taking care of their possessions, whatever they may be. It all ties into historic preservation, sustainability and general well-being. Potential for art and beauty is everywhere, in our homes and public spaces, in the detail of the way we choose to live our lives. Dante Gabriel Rossetti may have been one of the first to put into words the idea that the choices we make in the decoration of our homes – paintings, objects and interiors – reveal who you are and who you are not.
Well-maintained neighborhoods, homes, collections and gardens are a manifestation of the idea of loving something enough to care for it, and ensuring it lives on in the future, and enlightening the lives of others while doing it. Environmental activist Satish Kumar wrote in a recent article that ‘beauty leads to love – love of simple and elegant objects, love of home, of nature and of life.….let beauty be the measure of humanity…it is a prerequisite for a healthy society.’
To come full circle, love really is the answer.
preservation and authenticity
When a preservationist really thinks about restoration - very seriously – there are innumerable choices and decisions one must make: what is best for the building and its context?
How does one identify value and what actions or non-actions will maintain the value and integrity of the place? Every building and landscape has a set of measurable values which should be used to create an evaluation of the place. The evaluation is all part of the critical thought process that occurs before acting. Is the act of restoration really the best one can do at a particular moment? What impact will the restoration have for the future of the building?
Early reflection about every aspect is what embodies the Ethics of Restoration.
Throughout history, restoration and conservation were often influenced by time and the spirit of time, knowledge and attitude and awareness of culture and heritage.
Worldwide, historic preservation is heavily influenced by politics and economics, and sometimes even religion. The value of restoration changes when appreciation of history and culture changes, or there is influence from fine art movements. Consider also archeological discoveries or advances in technology, such as the industrial revolution. The Victorian era and the Arts and Crafts movement are a great example. All these aspects are, in fact, part of the rich cultural study of Architecture. But how can we relate preservation of Architecture to Ethics? A philosophical approach toward the conservation and preservation of cultural heritage and a clear idea how to keep cultural heritage healthy for future generations is absolutely necessary.
Ethics is all about asking questions - over and over again. Analyze, reflect, think! Compile questions and think again! Ethics focuses on morality and is an important part of Philosophy. Stated simply: What is right and what is wrong… and who am I to decide?
Ethics in restoration requires a great deal of discipline and a thorough understanding of the whole historic development of the object – be it a building, a landscape or both. It requires a humble approach, courageous spirit and a respect toward other theories of the past to be completely clear about one’s own thinking. Often times during a restoration, it is necessary to remove inappropriate restorations or additions. One can ask: To reconstruct or not? Or just begin with a clean slate? When a monument has different layers in time - character built from a long, varied life; changes and influences from trends in architecture and fashion - the correct course to take is difficult to know, and who is really qualified to make that decision?
The subject of ethics inspires much discussion. It is impossible to speak of ethics if individuals are absolutely sure about what is right and what is wrong. Absolute certainty in a situation involving historic preservation and restoration creates issues all by itself, making it extremely difficult to be completely objective in making the ‘correct’ choice. It’s always personal and the more one knows about the building or garden, the more difficult the act of restoration becomes.
Like most things, restoration is simple when one acts blindly, does not have much knowledge or if one is not aware of all the layers present in older structures. Ignorance can be very harmful and destructive to the delicate nature of an interior, exterior and setting of a historic building. It can be easy to destroy a very fragile part, simply because it is unknown or almost invisible. A very fine detail can be of value, but can be surprisingly vulnerable, and sometimes even not visible - and, so hard to explain - sometimes it is just a feeling, the spirit of the place itself.