What do these words mean and what conditions and responsibilities do they engender when used in connection to furnishings, art objects, environments, and architecture.
Renovation simply means to make an object look like new. The object to be renovated is just a base or starting point for the client/designer’s imagination. The object, materials and method of construction, historical importance, or place in time are not critical. The object itself does not place restrictions on the work to be done.
Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (1975) defines restoration as, “a bringing back to a former position or condition.” In restoring an art object, piece of furnishing, or architecture, the most important requirement is the final appearance. The client and restorer determine the most desirable period of an object’s life; and the restorer does whatever is necessary to return the object’s appearance to that period.
Preservation involves keeping an object from destruction and seeing to it that the object is not irredeemably altered or changed. The word preservation is most commonly used in relation to architecture and built environments.
Preserving an object places additional layers of requirements on the decisions regarding materials and methodology. In preservation, the final appearance is no longer the prime factor, but rather, retaining the maximum amount of building fabric.
Preservation dictates that in order to retain the maximum amount of building fabric, repairs must be done with minimal or no changes to the original building fabric and in like materials, and if possible using the same methods as first created. The Office of the Secretary of the Interior has devised strict requirements governing this type of work.
In conservation, the absolute maximum amount of the original material, in as unaltered a condition as possible, is preserved. Any repairs or additions must not remove, alter or permanently bond/cross-link to any original material. All repairs or additions must be reversible and removable without affecting the condition of the original material now, and in the future.
Conserving an object means the object dictates all choices on how it is treated. Conservation does not involve artistic choices or material experimentation on the object. It is important for both collectors and renovators / restorers / preservationists / conservators to have a basic understanding of these categories. It is also important to understand that the lines between these categories change with the type of object/situation involved.
For example, a project we had previously worked on involved almost all categories mentioned. It involved the creation of an historical museum from a house which once belonged to a couple who were legendary in their field of discipline. As the goal of the project was to restore the house environment to its prime historical period, it was necessary to restore some pieces, preserve some pieces, and conserve others.
The collector’s responsibility is to choose professionals who can determine the category of a piece and prescribe a work methodology that will maintain that categorization. The professional’s responsibility is to allow the piece to determine its own category and not allow a client/designer to overrule that choice. A professional conservator is able to intervene, for example, when the under-educated consumer wants to gut the client’s eighteenth-century American highboy, with original fittings and finish, to house the client’s new entertainment center.
In recent years, only one of all the disciplines mentioned above has gained wide recognition. Ironically, it is “conservation” which has become the key word amidst such a large vocabulary of disciplines that are all equally important to the well being of our precious possessions, whether personal or historical in value.