Have you had that sensation when looking at an object?
I can almost see the author write his last entry on the page, he closes the unusually shaped volume….
He snuffs out the candle (a favourite smell). His chair scrapes the tiles as he pushes it back with his knees. He trips over the dog and walks towards the door. The thud and click of the latch; then I’m alone with his book.
….I’m a conservator, not Jane Austen. I just make her book boxes.
The damage to the spine and the ugly paper repairs witness the passing of time since that moment. But the clarity with which his volume recalls its creation deserves consideration.
What is it that enables us to create such a vivid response to an object?
Does a particular person have to encounter a specific object? Does the artefact need to possess certain attributes or the viewer definite sensitivities? Is the object capable of producing the same effect in everyone?
How does it do this and can we understand how to maximise this?
As someone who works with these objects on a daily basis, have we evolved to time travel more easily or have we developed resistance?
So here are my thoughts…
The majority of books contain only the stories they were created with. Untouched by the famous, seemly unloved, unedited, undamaged. Empty.
Others, their power to transport is diffused and muddied…. or am I not looking close enough? Removed from their origins; time and location. So handled, damaged and repaired. Crammed full of stories that jostle to be told. Like a ride on the tube; you could get off anywhere and find something incredible.
This is not a “how-to” article. I’m incredibly grateful to all my colleagues who write “how-to” and “it’s like this” articles but I’m sorry I can’t return the favour. This time.
“Why?” is my interest. Why did that particular volume cause in me, such a vivid response?
From the smooth softness of the dirt on the pages to the quill shavings and hairs in the gutters, the presence of so many tiny details seemingly concurrent with its creation allows me to believe it had rested physically undisturbed for considerable periods of time. Like a fossil revealed from a split pebble, it felt as if I was the first to peer into this volume in a very long time. I wasn’t, but it felt like it.
The recognition and retention of an object’s capabilities; …let’s call it “T.A.R.D.I.S. potential” (pT), (the ability to prompt time travel) would seem to be critical to our work as conservators.
The capacity of your objects to generate new thoughts in the minds of your audience must be preserved. Thoughts cause feelings which are able to transform old and inspire new actions. Actions change and expand lives, for individuals and the world around them.
Surely this is the potential and ambition of displays and exhibitions? The act of conservation and preservation must protect an object’s capacity to do this.
Conserving and preserving Lancelot “Capability” Brown’s Account book, pT1 (where 1 = it feels as if you are there at its creation. 7 is neutral ….the present and 14, the clarity with which it conjures the future) has changed me.
It revealed me its stories, which influenced the treatment it received and continues to shape my work today. It’s made it possible for me to articulate what is at stake for the future, when we conserve, preserve and present the past: the possibility of change.
Lancelot “Capability” Brown’s Account Book
The only extant account book belonging to the famous architect and gardener. Responsible for re-designing over 170 gardens belonging to some of the countries finest stately homes, this volume details his income and outgoings from 1759 until his death in 1783.
In private hands, until the 1950s, the volume now resides in the RHS Linley Library in London