Securing the past: Conservation in art, architecture and literature
by Paul Eggert, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2009
ISBN: 9780521725910 (pbk), 302 pp., RRP A$42.95
review by Siân Jones

In this fascinating book Paul Eggert explores the parallels between three related fields involved in restoring or securing the past: namely, the preservation of historic buildings, the conservation of works of art, and the editing of literary works. All are concerned with 'making present' crucial moments of high achievement from the past, all involve considerable effort and resources, and all are ultimately founded on bringing forth to the viewing or reading public 'the real thing', or as close as we can get to it. In the process curators, conservators and editors face the daunting task of standing between the viewer, or reader, and the often confusing array of multiple and/or incomplete versions of works; of deciding what particular version to save and, in doing so, what alternative forms will be consigned to the margins, or possibly even erased forever. In response, as Eggert points out, considerable weight has been placed on several comforting ideals rooted in modernity, chief among them a Kantian distinction between subject and object, conservator and artefact, alongside a concern with remaining true to the original architectural, artistic, or authorial intention. Nevertheless there have been longstanding tensions between the desire to restore the aesthetic unity of the object or work, on the one hand, and a Ruskinian emphasis on 'historical witness', on the other. Furthermore, late twentieth-century developments in cultural and literary theory that stress the mediated nature of knowledge, and which ultimately question the very existence of the past as a secure objective thing, have brought into question the whole empirical project of preserving historical works.

It is this tension, or indeed gulf, between a theoretical scepticism about the objectivity of knowledge and the empirical endeavour of securing the past, that Eggert seeks to address in this book. His aim is to develop a new way of understanding curatorial, conservatorial and editorial ways of dealing with the past, which incorporates aspects of recent cultural and literary theory and thus achieves some continuity between theory and practice. To do this he explores a series of crises, scandals and shifts in paradigms that provide a rich source of theoretical debate, as well as new insights into the laborious and often anxiety-tinged work that practitioners do. These include, among others, the conservation and curation of Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney, the restoration of Uppark House in England, the controversies surrounding Han van Meegeren's forged Vermeer paintings and Helen Demidenko's (Darville's) novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper; the restoration of Michelangelo's frescos in the Sistine Chapel; and the editing of DH Lawrence's The Boy in the Bush. By dissecting these rich and complex case studies Eggert is able to shed new light on the debates surrounding authenticity, aesthetic unity, 'historical witness', authorship, the agency of editors and conservators, and their relationship with readers and viewers. Furthermore, by comparing case studies in curatorial, conservatorial and editorial practice, he reveals the parallel philosophical dilemmas these three fields face, but also the insights and solutions that they might offer one another and indeed to cultural theory.

By the end of the book, Eggert develops a theory of the work that focuses on agency and time. The life cycle of each building, painting or literary work is defined, he argues, by a production-consumption spectrum. The traditional emphasis on original authorial, artistic or architectural intention and authority is problematic. The idea that there ever was a stable set of transparently accessible original intentions is questionable. An architect's, artist's or author's intentions will almost always consist of a complex, shifting amalgamation of conscious and unconscious aspirations, adjustments, acts of chance, evasions, and compromises. Furthermore, once a work is produced it does not exist unproblematically. Physically it is always in a state of change, and at crucial moments in time it may be reworked, revised, or remodelled. Furthermore, users, viewers, and readers play a role in production, constituting works of architecture, art and literature through their particular viewing and reading practices, and the historically and culturally specific frames of meaning with which they are imbued. Thus the production-consumption spectrum is not a unilinear process, but rather the work is continuously subject to processes of production and consumption over time involving complex forms of agency. For Eggert, a clear understanding of these processes of agency and time are essential if practitioners are to have a stronger theoretical and philosophical foundation for the work that they do. In particular, it is essential to acknowledge that the work of curators, conservators and editors is an integral part of these processes. The hand of the conservator or editor is 'in the work'; their agency plays a key role in production, as well as mediating subsequent moments of production and consumption.

As Eggert explains in the preface, his interest in the dilemmas at the heart of this book has been brewing for almost two decades and ultimately stems from his experience as a scholarly editor. This practitioner perspective is crucial to the success of Securing the Past, providing insights into the complexities and intricacies of the dilemmas practitioners face and a source of empathy with the laborious and important work that they do. He also has a thorough and wide-ranging understanding of cultural and literary theory and is prepared to challenge some of the foundational concepts and principles underpinning editorial and curatorial fields. At times his impressive grasp of the complexities of practice and the philosophical dilemmas that this creates leads to a rather convoluted and intricate discussion that some may find distracting. Furthermore, a good editor would probably be able to discern multifarious authorial intentions, resulting from 20 years of development, which Eggert himself highlights in the work of others. Yet, as someone whose work has grappled with the gulf between cultural theory and the practice of conserving archaeological monuments and historic buildings, I found that this book offers an original and stimulating analysis. Eggert's literary and editorial background leads to a certain pre-occupation with the textual and semiotic over the material, which is particularly evident in his emphasis on a distinction between document and text, or material object and meaning. For me, and no doubt others concerned with buildings and objects there will be outstanding questions regarding the role of materiality and the agency of material things. However, he succeeds in providing a thought-provoking and insightful analysis of the issues we face in any project involved with securing the past. Moreover, he takes us much further along the difficult path of providing some rapprochement between postmodern cultural theory and the practice of conservation than most other work I have encountered.

Sian Jones is professor of archaeology at the University of Manchester, specialising in the archaeology of identity and cultural heritage.