Let it be

Conservation or restoration?

(Published in The Strad, March 2005)

To conserve or to restore? That has always been the question. Alan Coggins examines the two different approaches and asks whether they really are mutually exclusive.

It sometimes appears that there is a tug of war being waged over some of our most valuable instruments. On one side are musicians, bows raised, demanding to use them for what is undoubtedly their primary purpose - making music. Opposing them are the white-gloved museum staff, seemingly intent on locking the instruments away in store rooms or behind glass so that they can be studied and appreciated by future generations.

In a letter to The Strad (Soundpost, March 2004) Lawrence Nagle lamented the fact that two Stradivari violins, the 1677 'Sunrise' and 1679 'Hellier', were to be placed on permanent display in the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, a move he saw as designed to "protect them from the grubby hands of musicians". But it is not all one-way traffic. The 1742 'David' Guarneri del Gesù, bequested to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco by Jascha Heifetz, has recently been returned to active service. The violin is now on loan to the San Francisco Symphony in an arrangement which allows the concertmaster, Alexander Barantschik, exclusive use of the violin for all his orchestral and chamber performances for three years.

Those who object to fine instruments being cloistered in public collections will argue that their sound is the very reason for their fame and to silence them in this way is a travesty. They might also point to the number of poorly maintained instruments that are already languishing on museum shelves. The Chicago violin maker, Michael Darnton, recalls seeing one such violin, a small Amati, with a gaping top crack: "Restorers know what happens after that - the wood warps around the crack, dirt gets in, the wood oxidises and darkens, and it continues to get worse."

Meanwhile, museum supporters maintain that the value of these instruments has gone far beyond them being regarded simply as a means to make music - their age, history and significance make them irreplaceable objects that must be preserved. An instrument in constant public use is always in danger of theft, loss or damage. It is, after all, not unknown for players to leave valuable instruments in taxis, on trains, even on the front porch! No one would want to see a Stradivari ending up as a novelty CD rack, as almost happened to the 'General Kyd' cello (News, July 2004).

Whatever the individual view on this question (and it seems to polarise people in a remarkable way), it may be of some small comfort for musicians to know that they are not really regarded as the villains in this debate. Any violin restorer will tell you that much of the irreversible damage done to instruments over the years has been inflicted by members of their own profession. In his article on Paganini's 'Cannon', John Dilworth writes: "One of the great tragedies to befall del Gesù instruments is the cavalier rethicknessing that repairers have carried out. As a result we have been deprived of hearing the true Guarneri voice from all but a few survivors, of which this is the prime example. Had it not been kept in a museum for the last 150 years, even this would have gone too." Perhaps it might be more accurate to say that museums have been trying to protect fine instruments from the "grubby hands of violin repairers".

Fortunately this sort of vandalism is gradually becoming less common, but few people appreciate the significant role played by the museum fraternity in this regard. Over the last half-century conservators have been endeavouring to define a consistent and ethical approach for the treatment, storage, display and use of objects in their care. And violin restorers are now recognising the value of this work and have been adopting the philosophy and ethics of museum conservation for their own use.

The methodology of conservation can best be appreciated by reading the codes of ethics set out by any of the major conservation groups (see below). They typically comprise a brief list of general principles, followed by a longer 'code of practice' which provides more detailed guidance. For example the United Kingdom Institute for Conservation (UKIC) has a one-page code of ethics followed by a comprehensive seven-page code of practice.

Andrew Dipper, the well-known restorer and researcher now based in Minneapolis, has modified many of his procedures to bring them into line with current museum practices. His work involves a large component of historical research and every step is meticulously documented: "The occasions when it is possible to remove the plates of an instrument are few and far between. It is not possible to predict just what type of information will be required for future study. Any identifying marks such as brands, signatures or tool marks are photographed and dimensioned and full-scale drawings are made. Any parts which are removed are kept and labelled, even the smallest and seemingly insignificant fragments."

Conservation and restoration are often thought to be mutually exclusive, which is perhaps not surprising considering the definitions of each activity. The terms are often misused and the meanings have changed over the years, but in the current usage conservation implies preserving an object in its current state and ensuring that no further deterioration occurs. Restoration means actively intervening to return the item to some previous, more useful, state. In the case of a musical instrument, it typically involves making an unplayable instrument playable.

In reality, the distinctions are not that clear-cut and to view conservators and restorers as being on opposing 'sides' is just simplistic and unproductive. Conservators do understand the need to maintain a balance between allowing a meaningful appreciation of an object and ensuring its preservation. Just because a violin is in a museum does not necessarily mean that it will never be heard again, but the opportunities will usually be limited and carefully monitored. And for their part, restorers are becoming increasingly aware of the need to preserve original material and retain the historical integrity of an instrument.

The approach used by conservators has many aspects: research and consultation with others (including restorers), extensive written and photographic documentation of all work undertaken and, of course, caution and circumspection in everything they do. However the basics can be summarised in just two words: 'minimal' and 'reversible'. This means that any work done should involve the least amount of intervention to the original structure and anything that is done should be able to be completely undone.

Hieronymus Köstler in Stuttgart is one restorer who fully embraces these conservation principles. As standard practice he stringently avoids removing any original wood unless absolutely necessary. Even with a soundpost crack he will, as a first approach at least, simply glue the crack without fitting the standard internal patch to the soundpost area. And he has no hesitation in consulting others about his work: "If I have a problem I have a lot of colleagues I can go to. And I know I would get a decent and helpful answer. Because this is very important and we talk about little differences and decisions to be made. You need the support of other people."

Alex Grant, an experienced restorer now based in Melbourne, Australia, says: "It is important to understand that there is usually more than one way to achieve the desired result. More often than not, the easiest solution will also be the most conservative." Grant claims he has never seen an instrument that required complete half-edging, and in the past ten years has only fitted one soundpost patch in a belly, "and only then because a previous poor repair left a situation where the crack continually reopened". He also advocates the less invasive shaving bush to fill an oversized peg hole, stating: "If repairers were willing to fit spiral bushes at a much earlier stage then it might be possible to eliminate many of the situations where unsightly end-grain bushes are required."

While the ethical methods being used by some prominent violin restorers are gradually filtering down to affect general attitudes, it is a slow process. The various violin making associations are also working to raise standards through their journals, workshops and lectures, but few have set down a code of ethics for their members. The American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers (AFVBM) is one exception. Since most of the associations are open to all levels of membership, some form of ethical guidelines may be a useful avenue for future consideration.

One of the common themes mentioned in the various conservation documents is the 'shared responsibility' that custodians, conservators and restorers have in preserving the objects of our cultural property. For violin repairers and restorers this should involve an awareness of the conservation implications every time they are entrusted with an instrument. Players and collectors would also be well advised to have a good understanding of the repair work they sanction; especially those players who have made a large outlay on their instruments and are hoping to recoup that investment at the end of their careers. Bad or insensitive repair work can often mean a major devaluation.

At a recent conference in Australia, Hieronymus Köstler was asked whether he ever felt the pressure of the responsibility when working on very valuable or significant instruments. His reply was straightforward: "In restoration there is one secret: don't touch the original. So if you don't touch the original then you can't do very much wrong, because everything is reversible. When you do something wrong you can do it again ... so it isn't scary at all." In other words, applying a conservation approach to violin restoration should make it a much less stressful activity. Not only will it end up being better for the health of the instrument, it may also prove to be beneficial to the health of the restorer.