Those who have watched the “Antique Roadshow” have most likely seen and heard much about preserving the finish on an antique. This never-strip-an-antique philosophy often butts heads with the reality of owning and using antique furniture. When we put these objects in everyday use we have already made the choice that some parts of these objects will be sacrificed. By exposing its surface to direct sunlight we are failing to preserve the finish.We are failing to preserve the wood on the drawer runners and drawer sides if we use a chest-of-drawers for our daily clothing needs. Sitting on our chairs and sofas will eventually cause failures in the joins and wood. Antique furniture in use presents a unique class of objects whose preservation is being compromised every day. Not only that, but these objects had not always been considered worthy of preservation so often have had many previous repairs and restorations, some good and some very poor. In fact, it is a rare object indeed that has not been previously repaired and the extent of previous restorations helps to guide both the restorer and conservator what is in need of preserving and what has already been lost.
The word “conservation” is also bandied about, conveying very little toward how we should treat some of the objects to which we have become attached. As told to me by a friend and conservator, Don Williams, conservation is what conservators do. And conservators are people trained to do conservation! At the time this circular reasoning was his little joke, but it holds the truth that the conservator has been trained to make choices on what to fix and what to preserve, predicated on what information they wish the object to convey, its beauty and/or its history. And yet the utility of furniture is an important part of our enjoyment of it. It needs to be strong enough to continue its function. A chair with a broken leg can be put together just pushing the broken parts together. Visually the chair is the same as before the break and nothing intrusive was done to the chair. This may be fine if the chair is not to be moved, no less sat upon. Adding glue to that break may stabilize the chair to the extent that it can be used for exhibition. Museums do not have to be concerned about its utility any more—the object is for preservation and display for future generations. The same chair in someone’s home must be capable of holding up the average human. The conservator as well as the restorer must design a reinforcement capable of withstanding that use. The conservator makes choices that limit the intrusion to only what is necessary and more importantly, make that repair retreatable (i.e. capable of being either removed or retreated without damaging any of the remaining material). However, by putting that object in use, a decision has already been made as to what is going to be sacrificed for its utility. Broken parts are inevitable, finishes will be abraded away or damaged from sunlight and there will be the normal wear-and-tear of moving parts.
While I seek to preserve as much as I can of all the objects—I often use repair techniques that can be retreatable or reversible—many damages require intrusive repairs if the object is to remain useable and presentable. The owners of the objects ultimately decide what they wish to preserve and what information they wish the object to convey. My job is to help them recognize what is being sacrificed in its daily use and assist them in deciding what to repair (restore) and what to leave alone (preserve).