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Preservation or Restoration?
When your project has a title with four syllable words, you just know there are going to be issues. When it comes to fixing gravestones, we have a number of four syllable words duking it out. What’s it going to be: conservation, preservation, restoration, or reinstallation? It may seem arcane to many but to those charged with making the decision and doing the work, these are fight’n words.
Until you stand out in the field and look at an old monument or structure, the different terms don’t carry much import. But when the stone mason asks, “do you want the stone repaired or replaced?” it gets you thinking. And before you can divine an answer, he says he could also preserve it as is. A moment later he adds that it could be restored it to a certain degree. That’s when your brain starts to swim. Whatever you do will leave its mark for a hundred years. And some treatments are irreversible, so it better be right. No pressure or anything.
Preservation seeks to do as little harm to the original material as possible, given the fact that with stone, most treatments are irreversible. It seeks to stop the deterioration and prevent further loss by treating points of water intrusion. That means voids get filled where possible with micro-fine grout, cracks and fissures are sealed, and the open surfaces treated with consolidants that bind the grains of sand to withstand moisture. The drawback with preservation is that it can leave a disappointing appearance of erosion and dilapidation, and may not work.
Restoration on the other hand is equally important, and has been our decision on many occasions. Restoration seeks to rebuild or patch a monument or structure to restore its appearance to an original state as close as possible. The idea here is that the original builders did not have a beat-up old structure in mind; they build a new sharp monument expressing their pride and wealth. The drawback with restoration is that it can be quite intrusive, requiring substantial alteration to existing material, which can’t be reversed. Where the damage is severe but thin, there may not be enough depth for a patch to hold through successive freeze/thaw cycles. It too, may not work.
Conservation tries to split the difference. Conservation attempts to repair historic material but leave a clear trail of the work so that the old and new are discernable. It is more aggressive that preservation but less so than restoration. The drawback here is that conservation can often leave an odd juxtaposition of a rough worn historic façade alongside a clean sharp edged new surface that draws attention to the repair rather than the whole of the artifact.
Replacement is the last alternative. Sometimes there simply isn’t enough material left to work with or the original has become dangerously unstable. Or, as in the case of grave markers owned by the Department of Veteran Affairs and Defense Department, the philosophy is that respect for the service or sacrifice of the fallen is not allowed to fade or erode away; the honor is eternal and the marker should show our continued respect. A replacement object is of course not a historic artifact itself, but just a historical marker, not history but about history.
©2014 Historic Congressional Cemetery