at the conference on restoration
“These are objects damaged and repaired in ancient times,” she says, as we slip in, late. On the dark screen, a nymph is running away from a pursuing satyr, but one staple fixes her billowing hem to the frieze below— one large, lead staple on the Apulian red-figure bell krater, where it suffered a break to its ancient body. Rivets of bronze attach the foot to the bowl of a black kylix. These holes once held staples long since missing from the Attic Black-Figure Little Master Lip Cup, holes in the knee of the dancer—but the dance continues, as it has for centuries, despite each crooked fragment broken and lost, despite these scars or welts over the seams. “An object’s useful life doesn’t always end with this garden,” she says. Or no, end with discarding. The conservator’s accent (she’s Dutch) is hard to follow through a lecture whose “fusses” turn out to be vases. “Erasing” marks of breakage? Raising them? “We must recognize, it is crucial to recognize,” she says, with a tone of care approaching awe, “it is crucial to recognize the added failure. The ancient repair adds failure to the vessel. Failure—” Wanting to share that awe, I listen harder, straining to hear, while historians and conservators consider failure there in the auditorium of the museum on museum island in the heart of Berlin, great city of added failure— city of gaps and welts, of broken walls, of joins like staples forged from lead or bronze. Sleepy in the dark, it slowly dawns on me that what I hear is not (as I’d thought) failure, but value: she means there is value in repair—each crooked scar a sign, in fact, of care. For us, the value of keeping damage visible, what keeps us returning to gaps once filled with filed-down, alien fragments from objects that exploded in the kiln— wasters, they’re called, but failure needn’t be wasted. And now, when she says, value, I hear feel you— and do my best to feel what she says—we’re joined by efforts that matter. It rings true, this mishearing of failure, value, fuss, beloved vessel filling with failure, feeling for us all.