What We’re Watching: The Repair Shop – Or, Joanna Nerds Out About Object Conservation

A blog post by Director of Collections and Exhibits Joanna Church. To read more posts by Joanna click HERE.

“Cabinet Maker in His Shop,” Saul Bernstein, 1903. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Leslie Legum. JMM 1991.156.10

There are not many realistic depictions of my job to be found in popular media: “my job,” in this instance, encompassing a broad swathe of museum-, library-, and object-care-related tasks.  From 1946’s The Big Sleep to 2021’s Wonder Woman 1984 (read a fellow Baltimore museum professional’s take on Diana Prince’s dubious museum career here), from 1962’s The Music Man to 2004’s National Treasure (THAT’S NOT HOW ANY OF THIS WORKS), Hollywood et. al. have taken great liberties with their portrayals of my job. Kudos to the producers of The Alienist (2018) who were willing to include a scene of researchers just sitting around and reading census records! That IS how this works! But in the main, pop culture has shown a distinct lack of interest in what collections managers, archivists, registrars, librarians, curators, and conservators actually DO. 

…Maybe that’s because what we actually do can seem, well, a little boring for the purposes of viewers at home. Fair enough. So my delight, from the very first moments of the British television program The Repair Shop, was genuine. Here, at last, is a popular depiction of one part of what makes my job very much not boring: The opportunity to make tangible and meaningful connections between memory, history, emotion, and objects.

scene from Repair Shop captured on the author’s television, showing the title in lights on the side of the building
The show’s title in lights, on the side of the barn where the work takes place. Photo by the author.

The Repair Shop is filmed at the Weald & Downland Living Museum* in West Sussex, UK. The experts are conservators and craftsmen, including the occasional visit by, say, the last master cooper in all of England (I might be misremembering but he was something along those lines). The pieces brought in are a mix of valuable antiques and more humble items; I sometimes wish they’d present a little info more about each item’s maker, age, and origins, and how those might play into the restoration decisions they make, but this isn’t Antiques Roadshow, where the history and provenance lead to the market value. Instead, the experts encourage each owner to explain the personal stories and emotions related to that specific object. “What would it mean to you to have this restored?” they always ask.

And even better, they are careful to articulate the goal: how does the owner want the piece to look, and how will it be used? There is a clear, thoughtful, and purposeful difference made between “full restoration” and “keep the use wear and patina.” Although I can appreciate the artistry and skill behind a complete “like-new” make-over, it’s the pieces that are made stable and usable without losing that well-loved aesthetic – a wooden horse that ‘wouldn’t look right with a tail after all these years without one,’ for example – that really speak to me. (And in some ways, that’s an even harder task than a like-new restoration.)

In a history museum, our goal is often to preserve and exhibit items as-is, with all the years of use and reuse and love visible, even when we need to make repairs to stabilize something for exhibit or preservation – or bring in an expert conservator like the ones on the show.

scene from Repair Shop captured on the author’s television, showing two men working on an antique cradle.
Furniture restorers Jay Blades and Will Kirk work on an antique cradle. Photo by the author.

My friend who recommended the show described it as, essentially, ‘soothing and low-stakes.’ (The Guardian agreed, even before 2020 made the need for comfort television even more pressing.) I admit to occasionally finding it less than soothing – when another expert sent a fragile globe spinning with a hearty thwack, both I and the ceramics conservator reacted with muted horror – and, while I trust these experts to do right by both the objects and the owners, it’s anything but low-stakes. Having faith it will come out okay in the end doesn’t mean the end isn’t important. The number of people who wind up verklempt – owners and experts! (and viewers!) – when each finished piece is revealed attests to the importance of that end product.

scene from Repair Shop captured on the author’s television, showing a woman reacting with delight, hands to her mouth.
An owner reacts with delight upon seeing her repaired Dogs of Fo. Photo by the author.

I sometimes joke that my job is to squirrel away all your favorite belongings, and my friends and family can attest that I am always quick to ask “have you considered donating that to your local historical society?” But my personal mantra is to do the right thing by the object, whatever the owner knows that “right thing” to be. (After they’ve considered donating it to their local historical society.)

Do you want to give your wedding gown to charity? Practice on your grandfather’s saxophone? Let the dog sleep on Great-Aunt Matilda’s quilt? Display your mother’s heirloom china, or use it to serve Shabbat dinner? Donate your materials to another museum that isn’t JMM? As long as the decision is thoughtful – remember that some things, from donation to the-dog-slept-on-it-every-night repercussions, can’t be undone – I will help you make that happen. And knowing that I can help is part of what makes all those hours of reading the census** worthwhile.

As The Repair Shop’s ceramics conservator, Kirsten Ramsay, says at the beginning of each episode: “There is a real pleasure in bringing people’s pieces back to life again.” Whether that ‘life’ is continued use at home, or exhibition and preservation at a museum, I wholeheartedly agree.

via GIPHY

The Repair Shop’s “soft toy experts” celebrate a successful restoration.

*Yes, the fact that it’s filmed at a museum makes me love it all the more.

**Although I actually rather enjoy reading the census.

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