We’ve been wandering around in a cathedral today – something I always like doing. Along the way I read up on glass restoration and the issues it raises. Often, to repair a thing is to change it, especially if you add or replace material. A thing that is repaired enough times may cease to be the original. (Something Pratchett frequently plays with in his fiction). So to what extent should we intervene, to preserve, replace, keep viable, to what extent should historical things be left to crumble? It’s an interesting issue for any pagan to consider because of ancient, historical sites. But I’m going to keep talking about glass.
I’ve been looking today at a big stained glass window in which a number of restoration theories have been tried. It’s a window full of figures. Some have lost their faces due to time. On a couple of people, these have been replaced with plain glass, making the missing bit obvious. The effect, from a distance, is weird. ‘Blobby head’ does not begin to do justice. Then we have the sketched-in faces to give an impression – these stand out as being separate from the original and also jar with it. For added comedy value, a restoration old enough that no one wants to mess with it, has put a beardy face over a woman’s body! Finally there’s a new face replacement that looks like a vibrant piece of stained glass, in keeping with the window as a whole. At a glance you wouldn’t spot that it’s a modern addition. However, the woman represented has been given a fringe / bangs and a jaw line, so that anyone looking closely can tell it isn’t part of the original window from the 1300s.
I’m very much in favour of preserving that which is beautiful or meaningful. I think it’s important to consider the sense of the whole though, alongside authenticity. I saw a wooden knight figure which had been damaged and reassembled, there was a bit of wood missing, but the absence didn’t undermine the sense of the whole. Not like the blank glass blobby faces in the window. “Authentic” may be an issue, but so is “usable” and I am entirely opposed to turning things into museum pieces when they could be kept as living, functional spaces, or items. The idea of museums is relatively recent, most of our ancestors either kept using, or discarded. With finite space, time, resources and money I think it’s fair to question why we keep anything. Not to say that we shouldn’t keep history, but that we ought to consider why we want to hold it ‘in tact’ why we are so alarmed by intrusions from our own time, why we want to pickle history and put it behind glass and only look at it.
The Victorians had an enthusiasm for ‘restoring’ that meant something a lot like ‘making over’ fitting the actual past into their ideas about what they wanted the past to have been. That’s always a risk, but now those Victorians are also part of history. What they did to historical things is part of the world we inherit. Is Victorian history less valuable than 1300s history for being that bit closer? Is it only the scarcity of material from a period that makes it valuable? What we value and preserve, and why, is an important question. How many hovels have you seen preserved as national history? Isn’t it odd how historic worth and money tend to go together?
What do we want the past for? Do we need it to be somehow pristine, untouched by intervening years? That’s so unnatural. I’d rather have a breathing, living thing that is part of now, as well as part of the past. I love modern windows in ancient buildings – if you have to replace something, why make a replica when you can make new? And I love the modern, female figure with her jaw and fringe, who fits, but is not pretending to be of the time. Would I want someone to put Stonehenge back to its original form? Absolutely not. It is how it has become, and there’s no certainty we’d get a reconstruction right. I wouldn’t mind if the road could be taken away from it though. It’s funny, we go mad trying to preserve a specific thing, so often forgetting that it belonged to a context, which mattered. We preserve specific ancient sites, but not the landscapes in which they sit. In focusing on one tree, we forget the forest.
History is good, but making a thing work is more important. A stained glass window full of blank panes and blobby heads may avoid introducing modern matter, but it’s not impact free. It changes the context of all the remaining glass. I’d rather a well considered reworking that respects the integrity of the whole, rather than clinging to the past above all else. I’d rather something that works, and can be touched, than a broken relic doomed to remain forever in a display case.