Staring down a paradox

Clues in the dust.

A heavy layer of dust and debris under the keys is full of clues, including the only surviving evidence of the original green silk that originally covered the doors.

By John Watson

In the first installment of this blog, I claimed that restoration is a paradox. A paradox is a contradiction, both sides of which are true.

If we value an object because it is historic, but then replace parts, refinish surfaces and make other radical changes in the name of restoration, is it still the same historic object? At what point does the object become a mere copy of itself? When does it become just an illusion of a historic object?

Conventional approaches to restoration usually ignore this paradox, but when visitors come into our museum, they need to trust that what they see is real. In our conservation labs, we rarely use the term restoration because our treatment approach is quite different. The better term for what we propose to do with this organized piano is restorative conservation.

Historic objects are covered with physical evidence about the past. Tool marks, scribe lines  and faint pencil marks in hidden surfaces are among the many byproducts of construction. These are clues about the past.

Clues on the tuning pin block.

The maker used a grid of scribe lines to locate where to drill the tuning pin holes. Number stampings on the nut tell what wire sizes were used.

Many historians have learned to read this kind of evidence as clearly as if it were written text. So our organized piano is like a voluminous book of history.

But it is also a musical instrument.

If this object is a history book, then we should barely touch it, so we can preserve all that evidence and the information it represents.  On the other hand, if it is a musical instrument, it begs a mighty effort to restore all of its hundreds of parts.

The promise of what we call restorative conservation is to choose often unconventional restoration methods to restore musical qualities, while also identifying and preserving vulnerable evidence on old surfaces.

Not all objects in our collection receive restorative conservation. In the next post, we will meet a stunning new addition to our collection. Hint: What could be the perfect mate to the Tucker organized upright grand piano? How about an organized square piano just four years younger?

Conservation of the Tucker organized piano is made possible by a gift in memory of N. Beverley Tucker, Jr.


  1. Winnie Dolderer says

    I was fortunate this week to take the tour and get to see your shop and hear a bit about this piece you are working on. Is it going to go back into the Tucker House when restored? Thanks for sharing your time and talents with us.

    • John Watson says

      Thanks for your comment and for visiting the conservation lab last week. Initially, the “Tucker” organized piano will go into the museum where it will be a centerpiece of the planned musical instrument gallery. It is possible that some day it could be returned to the Tucker house, but for now, the museum is where it can be put to the best use.

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