Restoration ecology and the Portland vase: what have these in common?
While wandering through the British Museum (BM) the other day I found myself looking at a selection of Greek sculptures most of which had bits missing. And then I spotted some that had remnants of polychrome painting on them.
Why do we always exhibit such artefacts in the state they were found, and not in the state they were intended by their creators? Of course very often it’s because we don’t know, but in many case we know with a great deal of certainty, and in other instances we can make very good guesses.
The Parthenon Marbles (otherwise known as the Elgin Marbles) are a case in point. The BM exhibition of them does illustrate what they would have looked like in glorious colour (by most modern tastes quite over the top vulgarity). But that is what they were designed to be like.
And most classical statues staring blankly would have had eyes. And that got me thinking about restoration ecology. Because that is essentially what conservationists are doing.
We know perfectly well that the statue had an arm, so we are restoring it. We know that beavers once inhabited the wilder glens of Scotland, so we are restoring them.
In some cases restoring a species is impossible because the situation has changed too much – reintroducing lions to Greece is probably a non-starter, even though we know they were there within historical times.
Likewise, some statues are too fragmentary to restore. And then as I was leaving the museum I walked past the Portland vase, which had famously been smashed to pieces by a madman in the 19th century, and then lovingly restored, guided by a copy that Wedgewood had made. The analogies with restoration ecology were blindingly obvious.
Purists in the archaeological and art world regard restoration as a kind of fakery, and many ecologists might take the same view. But in both cases, I would argue it is more important, wherever possible, to achieve what was originally intended.