Monday, June 15, 2020

Care and Repair

I've begun watching The Repair Shop, a British reality tv show (first two seasons are available on Netflix in the US). The premise: People bring in their busted family heirlooms (music boxes, garden gnomes, paintings, clocks, furniture, teddy bears) to the repair shop (hosted at the Weald and Downland Living Museum in Sussex), where skilled artisans repair, restore, or remake them. 
 
That's it. There's no competition. There's no appraisal of monetary or historic value. The dramatic tension comes from how the artisans confront and solve the problems in front of them, and the owners' responses to their repaired keepsakes. Seeing people moved, often to tears, by having an object--perhaps a tangible link to a beloved ancestor, or a reminder of a particular moment--repaired and returned to them, is one of the best parts of the show.

The show promotes an ethic of repair, which is both affecting and empowering. Seeing chewed up stuffed toys or shattered garden gnomes treated like relics seems like it should be ridiculous or absurd. Instead, seeing experts turn their whole attention to a problem, lavishing their care and taking pains to ensure that a stuffed toy can serve as confidant to another generation, or that a favorite chair can again be used, is moving, because it is a reminder of what it looks like when others take our cares as seriously as we do. Watching the artisans do their work is also a potent reminder of just how much can be repaired, if only we give it our full attention, our imagination, and our time.

The other aspect of the show that makes it a success are the craftspeople. They all seem completely delightful (and I hope they are), and they all have considerable expertise. I have, in my own research, been thinking a lot about how experiential knowledge--what you learn through your senses--is often conceptualized and presented. (If you're interested, there's a group of incredibly talented scholars at Columbia who are exploring this topic via a 16th-century manuscript of recipes and artisanal processes.) Learning by doing, and the kind of knowledge that learning by doing imparts, is not the same as learning via texts or theories. Roger Bacon, the 13th century philosopher, wrote that if you only learned about fire through reading, you'd have no real idea of what it was like to get burned. You have to get burned in order to fully understand it. Bacon also discussed how much natural philosophers (often associated with universities) had to learn from soldiers, farmers, miners, and herbalists. Bacon was still arguing for a strong distinction between elites and non-elites, but he also insisted that learning by doing can confer knowledge that can't be gained any other way. 

In The Repair Shop, the artisans are constantly using their empirical knowledge, and their experience to solve problems and to repair items. When cleaning an antique shoe-stretcher, metalworker Dominic Chinea employs "an old farmer's trick:" an overnight soak in a solution of pure acetone and transmission fluid, a solution (in both senses) that you won't find in a book. They are constantly drawing on their empirical knowledge of how materials behave under different conditions in order to repair them, as when several of the experts worked together to replace an oak signpost and clean up a village sign that is always exposed to the elements. Amanda Middleditch and Julie Tatchell, who repair stuffed animals, can identify when something was produced by looking at the stitching, the fabric, or the stuffing. This isn't the same as expertise via connoisseurship (Antiques Roadshow or American Pickers), it's expertise gained from sustained, sensory experience. 

It's this experience-based expertise that allows the repair shop to be what furniture restorer Will Kirk, "the workshop of dreams." He says it with a slightly ironic intonation, like I know, it's corny. But yet the show keeps me thinking to myself, Where do I want to place my attention? What do I dream of repairing? What can I learn by doing? What can I repair through my actions? At this moment, these seem like some of the most important questions to be asking.

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