A new blog launching March 3 follows the restorative conservation of a rare survival: an organized piano. A piano combined with a pipe organ, this unique instrument towered at nine feet tall and seven feet wide.
Its restoration raises questions at every step. Repairing a broken element could mean erasing a piece of the object’s history. Conservator John Watson prepares to meet the challenges publicly in the Organized Piano blog, where he’ll search for the best balance of repair and conservation.
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Harmony Hunter: Hi, Welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. Restoring antiques is a tricky business. Some methods can restore all the luster of a brand new object, but erase centuries of history in the process.
Other methods preserve an artifact’s wear and tear, viewing its scars and patches as a historic document. This is a struggle that will play out for the public in the organized piano blog, which will debut at History.org on March 1. Joining us now is conservator of instruments John Watson, who discovered a remarkable instrument that set this whole project in motion. John, thank you for being back on the show.
John Watson: Thank you. Good to be here.
Harmony: The blog that you’re going to start, this whole idea started with a really unusual instrument. Tell us about the instrument that you found and how that laid out this opportunity for you.
John: Yes, this is a musical instrument that might, when it was first arriving in Williamsburg in 1799, it might have been the largest domestic musical instrument, certainly in Virginia and possibly in America. It’s a combination pipe organ and piano, grand piano. It stands nearly nine feet tall and nearly seven feet wide and is a very imposing looking instrument.
The history is quite remarkable. It was made in London, shipped to St. George Tucker here in Williamsburg and set up by a local cabinetmaker, Benjamin Bucktrout. We still have the receipt from Bucktrout setting up the instrument for St. George Tucker. And against all odds the instrument has survived to the present day.
Harmony: And now why do you say against all odds? What makes this such a rare survival?
John: It’s rare on many levels. First of all, it’s the only surviving organized upright grand piano around. There are organized pianos, most of them square pianos: an oblong instrument with one or possibly two sets of pipes underneath. This is a very tall upright grand piano with a sizeable organ attached to it. It’s the only one of that type that survives; that anyone knows of. So it’s rare in that sense. It’s also rare in the sense that very, very few of these were made. In fact, we don’t have any solid evidence that another upright grand piano was combined with a pipe organ in the period. It may have happened, but this was rare in its day and somehow survived to the present.
Harmony: When you’re saying “organized piano,” you’re not speaking of its organization, you’re saying the organ has been applied to it and it has been “organized.”
John: Yes. That was the period term for combining an organ and a piano together. You would call it an “organized piano.”
Harmony: That just sounds so wild. I’ve never heard of an instrument like that. Was this a passing fad?
John: It was particularly popular right at the very end of the 1700s and into the first, oh, 20 years or so of the 19th century. After that the idea continued, but instead of having a pipe organ it was a reed organ, like a pump organ type of mechanism, but this was just a short period when this type of thing was particularly popular.
Harmony: And this would have been for use in your home, in your parlor, in a small space?
John: Yes, that’s right.
Harmony: So where did you find this?
John: Well, I had heard about it 25 years ago. And by the time I caught up to the place where it had been seen in an antique shop in Richmond, Virginia, the instrument and the antique shop were long gone. So I had it on my mind to track this thing down. Then in 2012, I got an email from a colleague in New York who said there was an organized upright grand piano in a warehouse in Virginia in Richmond that needed a home. So I was delighted. I knew that was the instrument and I went right up to see it.
Harmony: So when you found it what condition did you find it in?
John: It was in many, many pieces. The piano separated from the organ of course, but the organ has hundreds of pieces on its own, of course. All the pipes and the wind chest and the other, the bellows, everything was separated and taken apart in a warehouse. So we had to get the pieces back to Williamsburg and piece them all back together.
Harmony: So looking at that organ and seeing it, is that when the idea dawned on you that here you have a beautiful case study of how to show the questions that play out when you’re looking at, do you restore it, do you preserve it; is it some combination of the two? How did that opportunity present itself to you?
John: That’s a huge and difficult question to answer with any musical instrument, especially in a museum environment where we know our responsibility as a museum is not just to make things understandable to the public -- that is, looking somewhat complete and looking somewhat nice -- but there’s also a feeling on the part of many people that musical instruments, to be understood at all, need to make music. So we have a conflict to figure out.
There’s a paradox really. The more we do to restore a thing the more of the historical evidence on its surfaces gets eroded away so we were faced with the possibility of putting it back in playing condition, a kind of restorative conservation and doing so in a way that protects historical evidence. And that’s a very peculiar approach, a very unique approach to restoration.
Harmony: Before we talk about the approach, tell me a bit about some of the types of historical evidence that might be preserved, that might be found on the surface.
John: This is a kind of evidence you might call forensic evidence. It’s physical evidence in the form of scribe lines that the original maker might have used to lay out how he’s going to cut the wood and how he’s going to fit things together. There are accretions, that is, deposits left from the original making or possibly early use of the instrument. There might be wear patterns. How worn are the keys? That’ll tell us how much it was used by the original family. There’s markings, there can be pencil markings, ink markings, sometimes on the inside done by the original maker.
All of this is evidence that the longer you look at them, and the closer you look at them the more you can piece together what tools were used in its construction, the process of construction, even where the thing had spent its history. Because there’s some imprint left by the room in which it was. Was there a window on the right or on the left? That will cause the wood to fade more on that side. There’s a lot of evidence there just waiting to be read.
Harmony: So as you’re looking at this instrument, it’s a very special instrument. What you’ve got here is one that you can trace to Williamsburg. It has a wonderful Williamsburg provenance. It’s fairly undisturbed. It hasn’t really been restored previously, so you have a lot of opportunity to find some of those clues that you mentioned. How are you going to begin? Where do you start?
John: We’ve laid it together the best we can. There are some missing bits that keep it from coming completely together, but that gives us an idea of what we have; what’s missing, where the damage is. There’s a process of assessing condition of each individual part and for each condition, issue, problem there has to be a solution that’s found. And that’s really what sets this approach apart from conventional restoration, where for each job that needs done to restore a particular part, there might be many different alternative ways to do it and we’ll choose the way that steps over the evidence, that preserves the evidence, so that when we’re done with our work you can still see those scribe lines and those accretions and those tool marks and the instrument will not lose that historical evidence.
Harmony: And this is an approach that is fairly uncommon, or maybe until recently maybe hadn’t been considered as often, this approach of doing a restoration in a way that tries to preserve all the evidence, all that history.
John: That’s right. I think the approach that museums take to restoration is much more oriented to preserving all of that evidence. In the museum, we see an object like this not being just a utilitarian object. If it’s broken you fix it. But it’s also this document from the past that has a lot more to tell us about the past than just its function.
So when we do restorative work, we tend not to call it restoration in the museum world. We look for a different word for it. Most conservators use entirely different terminology. I like to think of it as restorative conservation. It is restoration, but it’s a very particular approach to restoration.
Harmony: We’ll get to see this instrument come back to life and even be re-assembled from its disparate parts on a blog. Tell us about the blog project and how you envision that unfolding so that everybody can see not only a rare and unusual instrument from history coming back to life, but also seeing this process of restorative conservation in action.
John: I think it’ll be fascinating to see how each of these restoration problems that we’re faced with in the museum, how they are solved in a way that avoids the pitfalls of this paradox of the damage that restoration can cause on antique objects. So the blog will show our process of thinking. Here’s the problem, here are the options of how we can take care of it, and here’s what we’re going to choose for this reason. And what it will do is actually show the approach of restorative conservation as distinct from conventional restoration.
Harmony: It sounds exciting to me as a viewer; maybe a little bit more nerve wracking to you. I imagine that you don’t even know what problems you might stumble across as you go.
John: That’s right. It’s a continuous process of evaluating, re-evaluating. You start with an action plan. It’s pretty detailed, but almost always that gets changed along the way because, well, one of the most likely things to happen is I’ll find evidence I didn’t know was there and that means changing the approach to protect that evidence.
Harmony: Once this instrument is restored where will it live? Is it going to be in an exhibition building, is it going to be in a museum, do you envision that it ever will be played?
John: We certainly do expect it to be played, and there’s an interesting history. In the early 19th century some of the first museums to be formed in America --there’s one in Richmond and Philadelphia, in New York -- had organs as sort of entertainment, I guess, for the visitors. But the idea of pipe organs in museums is a very old idea. We do plan to put it in the Museums of Williamsburg where it will be the centerpiece of a new gallery of musical instruments.
Harmony: John, it sounds like a really fascinating project. I’m looking forward to seeing it unfold. If listeners want to see this blog as well it launches on March 1, 2014 and it’ll be available on History.org.
John, thank you so much for being here today and best of luck with this new project.
John: Thank you.