Friday, January 27, 2012

A Reproduction by Any Other Name

Last night's panel presentation, "Keeping it Real," raised some complex questions concerning the intersection of the conservation, curatorial and interpretive spheres.  Perhaps the most philosophically challenging was the matter of the distinction between a replica and a reproduction.  New York State Bureau of Historic Sites paper conservator Michele Phillips has been promoting a working definition of these two terms as they apply to the use of interpretive, "prop" objects in a historic house context.  

Simply put, a reproduction is an copy made using the design, materials and production techniques of the original (historic) object - as closely as possible, given inevitable changes in materials and technology over time.  A replica, on the other hand, is a copy produced utilizing designs, materials or techniques that diverge significantly from those of the original object.  

"Huh," you say?

What's perplexing about this distinction is that such copies, if successfully executed, serve the same purpose:  to stand-in for original objects that are either lost or not suitable for display due to their condition or environmental factors (such as light levels).  Thus, for the observer, successful replicas and reproductions are essentially the same: they are facsimiles that serve to enhance a context, enrich an experience, or tell a story.  For that matter, they are distinct from the more infamous term forgery - a copy that is made to be passed- off as the original for nefarious purposes.

The Martin House library:  a reproduction table and, in the background, a replica print.

In furnishing the Martin House, the curator / conservators team has utilized both replicas and reproductions.  The prime examples are:  1) replica Japanese ukiyo-e prints, and 2) reproduction dining and library tables.  The tables are clearly in the realm of reproductions:  they closely follow Frank Lloyd Wright's original designs, executed using the original materials and techniques.  They function as the Martins' original tables did.  On the other hand, the "Japanese prints" that now grace the walls and piers of the house are clearly replicas - color ("giclee") prints on Japanese paper, produced by sophisticated 21st century digital imaging and printing methods, rather than by 18th century woodblocks and vegetable-based inks.  Why not show the original Japanese prints from the Martin collection?  Because they are already badly faded, and highly susceptible to further deterioration from light exposure.  Without scrutiny by the highly-trained eye, the replica prints are indiscernible from the originals, and serve the altruistic purpose of protecting the originals by allowing them to stay in storage. 

Webster is of little assistance in keeping these terms straight;  definitions of both replica and reproduction indicate an exact copy of an original.  However, reproduction does carry the denotation of something produced again.  Insert a hyphen - re-production - and it's even more clear:  an object was produced at a point in time and now, it's re-produced from the same design, using the same materials and production methods (at least in Michele's definition).  

If museum terminology could be copyrighted, Michele would have introduced a hot commodity.  Barring that, I guess we can feel free to reproduce her definitions...or replicate them, as the case may be.


Anonymous said...

Not to split hairs but if this is how the definitions are going to be applied, I would say the tables are not complete reproductions. The wood is correct and the construction is probably close enough to be called correct, for the sake of reproduction. The finish is another matter however, as I lamented in a previous post. Neither the materials (modern lacquer/stain) or the technique (I presume it was sprayed) are close to the original in my humble opinion. Period work would have been hand applied dye (technically not stain), shellac, and wax. These are things easily reproduced and purist hobby restorer refinishers are remarkably religious in this realm. I would call the finishing a replica approach based on the definitions presented.


EJF said...

Hi Gus -
You make a good point about the finish - so perhaps the tables are best described as reproductions with replica finish - a hybrid category that may actually be quite common. Perhaps the reproduction / replica definition is an analog spectrum, rather than a quantum, "either / or" definition. Thanks for your comment.

Anonymous said...

I am the person who actually finished the tables, and I attempted to match the original finishing techniques as closely as possible. New York State completed a scientific analysis of various samples of the existing finish in 2004. While the results were somewhat ambiguous, the analysis appeared to conclude that a linseed oil based stain, followed by bleached shellac, another coat of linseed oil based stain, bleached shellac, and copal (gum) varnish was used. As these exact formulations are unknown, and, in the case of copal (gum) varnish, unobtainable, I researched modern equivalents. I discovered a brand of oil based stain consisting of pigment, kerosene, and mineral spirits; was able to source pure bleached shellac flakes to be mixed with pure ethanol; and found an alkyd varnish that is oil based and is a very close match to the original in look and "feel". The shellac layers were sprayed on, as I found no difference between hand applied and sprayed. The varnish was hand applied by brush, then smoothed with 0000 steel wool, and hand waxed with BriWax.

Should you compare the finish of the tables with any cleaned section of existing trim that is in good condition, you will find them to be remarkably similar. Therefore, I believe that the finish would qualify as "reproduction" of the original.