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Restoration Ethics - A Survey of Museum Curators

    

 I recently surveyed a number of curators of military museums from western Europe about their views on firearms preservation and restoration. The primary theme that ran through each response was that in collecting or owning historic firearms was to preserve, conserve and protect. This article is intended to expand upon these concepts and to apply them to non-museum community.

      If you have read the other material in the Preservation section of this website, you know that surplus military firearms are more than just throw away antiquated inventory. These firearms are surviving historical artifacts that are symbolic of significant events in modern history. You also learned that supplies of these firearms are finite and dwindling fast. Indeed some have all but disappeared. Understanding the preservation of these firearms and the associated ethics and standards of their care is important to ensuring their survival for generations to come.  

The following is a sample of the responses I received: 

Concerning weapons, it is advisable to ere on the less is better side. It is more important to maintain an artifact's current condition then to modify it by extensive cleaning and repair. stabilization is the correct goal, as the piece could eventually be treated by a professional conservator with far more knowledge and skill than you of myself. As far as restoring an altered piece to its original intended use, you would have to decide if the conversion represents a significant historical act which is important enough to preserve, and do other examples exist which display the same modification. Again advice would be to only do what can be reversed. Minor cleaning of metal and wood surfaces is allowable as long as components are not damaged, materials are not removed, and characteristics such as markings or grooves are not altered. I hope this information is of some help. You may wish to contact Mr. Les Jensen, who is the Firearms Curator at the West Point Museum. His email is leslie.jensen@us.army.mil

Good Luck in you efforts.

Sincerely, 

Steven Ruhnke

Curator, AD Museum

DSN 485-6349 

      The significant point here is the philosophy of "doing no harm" when it comes to historically significant military firearms. Of course the writer is referring to exceptionally rare firearms when writing "the piece could eventually be treated by a professional conservator with far more knowledge and skill than you or myself." However, the overall message is a minimalist approach to cleaning up a new acquisition. When the writer stated "you would have to decide if the conversion represents a significant historical act which is important enough to preserve, and do other examples exist which display the same modification." He was referring to my specific question about the ethics of "restoring" ex-sniper rifles. Mr. Ruhnke makes the point that if Mosin Sniper rifles were extremely rare or nearly non-existent, it might be justified but normally not. Clearly there are plenty examples of these rifles on the current market and in collections. He follows this with a caution that you should only alter what could be returned to the original condition. This basically dictates that an ethical "restoration" of an ex-sniper is impossible due to the necessary removal of wood and metal involved. 

The next response continues to support the theme of preservation: 

Thank you for your enquiry on the conservation and preservation of military small arms. 

There are no hard and fast rules for conservation, you have to make a decision based on your own requirements.  Saying that, in museums there are certain things that we would take in to consideration.  The following is what I would do, and what we do at Derby Museum. 

First of all decide why you want to conserve the item.  Is it for display, or just to prevent further deterioration whilst in storage?  One of the most important things with conservation is to know when to stop, the item may be 100 years old - should it look like it was made yesterday? Secondly you need to determine scarcity and importance.  If you restore this item, which may involve replacing original parts with replica parts, are there others in original condition (with all original parts)? Thirdly, history of the item.  Was the damage caused by use of the weapon in battle?  If so, the damage is an intrinsic part of the object's history and so restoration should be kept to a minimum.  If it was damaged due to poor storage in recent years, then there is a good case for restoring the object rather more. Fourthly, how much work needs to be done?  Some items are beyond repair, it may need so much work that by restoring it you are in fact creating a new item.  (The usual example is a clock - to have it working as it would have been in it's 'lifetime' (before becoming a museum object) will cause wear and new parts will be required to replace old ones - at some point you may be left with a mechanism that is wholly replica/replacement parts, with none of the original item remaining.) 

The historical value of an item is the main concern in museums, so I would usually opt for conservation work that would stabilize the object and prevent further deterioration.  If there were a number of items the same, one would be selected for display and restored to show how it would have looked when it was in use. 

All of the weapons at the Museum have been made safe (so they cannot be used for their intended purpose), perversely, after what I have just been saying, permanently altering their state.  However, this is a moral & security judgment that has been made - one, which I have to say, I agree with.  So we would never have a weapon restored to working order. 

One last thing, all conservation work that is carried out on museum objects should be reversible, and visible.  We are not trying to trick people, but equally a little bit of conservation can help people to appreciate and understand objects better.  For example, a WW1 battle dress blouse has recently been conserved, the moth damage has been lightly patched from underneath with a matching coloured material.  You can still see that there has been some moth damage, but it no longer draws your attention away from the object itself. 

There are a fair few things to think about there, and really that's the point, if the object belongs to you, you have to decide how much or little work you want done on it.  I cannot advise on the effect that conservation will have on value, but you should always be open about repairs, as I am sure you appreciate others being. You should always maintain conservation records and keep the conservators report of work that they have carried out on the object.  This is important because materials used today that are assumed not to harm the object, may, in the future, be found to damage them.  If you know how your artifacts have been treated and with what substances, then you can save yourself some headaches in the future. 

The UK Institute for Conservation (UKIC) has some advice on Conservation Treatment - they have a web site that may help you.  If not, I can photocopy a page on it from their members handbook and send it to you - please supply you postal address for this. 

For practical advise on conserving weapons, or preservation methods that you can carry out your self, I would consult with a specialist conservator, or you could try contacting the Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds, who have a conservation department: tel 0113 220 1999, enquiries@armouries.org.uk. 

All the best

Vivienne. 

Vivienne Rudd

Assistant Keeper of Military and Social History

Derby Museum and Art Gallery

The Strand

Derby

DE1 1BS

tel 01332 716656  

      Aside from the writer's belief in demilling firearms which she shamelessly admits is a contradiction to the spirit of preservation, she reinforces the concept of minimalism, preservation and conservation. Her comment, "One of the most important things with conservation is to know when to stop, the item may be 100 years old - should it look like it was made yesterday?" is telling in that so many new collectors seem to want to make their rifles look like new when it really removes the history and character of the firearm. Note the strong caution regarding the documentation of any repairs or changes made to the object being preserved. Also consider the note regarding materials used. Every effort should be made to use period materials and techniques. 

      The final response I am including in this article is short but very straight to the point and seems to sum everything up: 

As a general rule, the purpose of conservation is to freeze time and stabilize the condition of the object in order to avoid further deterioration. Having that in mind, the sniper rifle should be conserved as it is and not be restored to its original condition as if it was new. Such a restoration would have meant the destruction of a large part of the weapon's history and importance. 

I hope this is of some assistance. 

Yours sincerely 

Sophie Stathi

Department of Weapons, Equipment and Vehicles 

      Ms Stathi used just a few sentences to make a powerful argument for preservation. She doesn't mince words when she cautions against "restoring" an ex-sniper! 

      You can clearly see that these professionals strongly advocate the preservation and conservation of historic firearms. We should all draw a lesson from their advice. They are in the business of preserving the last remnants of historical artifacts because time, carelessness and commercialization has made historic artifacts nearly extinct. The same is happening to the rifles you own, collect or shoot. I hope this short bit of research opens some eyes to the importance of collecting ethics and practices that will keep these historic firearms around for generations to come!

 

Restoration & Preservation Ethics

Americans are instinctively tinkers and innovators. When ever we find something old we love to fix it up. We are no different with historic battle rifles like the Mosin. However, we need to consider an important fact. These pieces of history are not around in infinite numbers. It is easy to believe that an endless supply exists when you see the ads of almost every major distributor in the United States. Another factor that shapes the belief that they are not so scarce is their relatively low price compared to other collectable historic rifles. For some reason, mostly related to economic myths, we equate low cost and high availability with a large supply. However, that could not be farthest from the truth. 

These rifles are a gift from the past and should be seen as unique historic artifacts. For the most part, these rifles have seen active service during major historic periods from the Russian Revolution to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The Soviets kept very few firearms in contingency storage as they had to equip large standing armies and reserve forces as well as provide arms to their Warsaw Pact allies.

If we can agree that these weapons are historically significant and that some day there will be no more imported, then we can discuss their preservation. I have presented a section on restoration because I believe that firearms differ from antiques in preservation. In the antique world, an artifact is left as it is found. One does not clean it or refinish it or replace broken parts. A great deal is made about the “patina” of a certain item and its value is directly tied to the existence of its original finish. For years, firearms collectors adopted the same standards. I believe that this was because early on, the collectors were in fact avid antique collectors as well. It was only natural that they use the same standards for collecting guns.

 The idea was that by leaving the original finish, a fair value could be established for the item based on grade or condition. Also, with many types of firearms, it prevented the falsification of serialized parts. This system may have worked well for other firearms but it doesn’t fit well with a firearm that has remained in service from the late 1890’s to the mid 1980’s. As many of know the Soviets let nothing go to waste. They did not have the manufacturing base to treat firearms as disposable items. As new models of Mosin rifles went into production, rather than manufacture completely new receivers, they simply parted the receivers out on unserviceable rifles and used them. They had little regard for ensuring that individual components remained serialized. Therefore is the exception to find a Mosin that is matching from tang date to barrel date, manufacturing of all parts and in all serialized parts. It is even more difficult to find one like this that has not been refurbished at least once. As a result, there is little value in using the antiquated collecting standards with these rifles.

Since the old standards don’t as a rule apply, then it stands to reason that restoration if done correctly would not diminish the value of a Mosin rifle. That being said, there are still some ethical points to consider. Where do you draw line between a restoration and a remanufacturing of a historic firearm?

I have chosen to use the same standard as many military museums. The rule of thumb is to restore the piece to its original condition upon retirement from service. That means that if an airplane was retired as troop carrier but once was a bomber, it is restored as a troop carrier. If a tracked vehicle was retired as an artillery platform but once was a tank, it is restored as an artillery platform. The point is that the history of the artifact is not being changed by the restoration.

 In terms of the actual restoration process, care is taken to use what period appropriate materials are still available today. In doing so, great care is taken to craft those materials in period fashion. If an aircraft skin was riveted, it was not welded. If a gun carrier was painted by brush, it is not spray painted. If parts are missing, it is preferable to remanufacture those parts using period technique. Of course this is not always possible if items were forged using techniques that no longer exist. In that case, the parts are produced with the same look and feel as the period forging. Nothing gets re-serialized unless it is a regulatory requirement like in the case of airframe components.  

To me, these same standards should apply to firearms. If you choose to restore a Mosin, then do so with period parts, materials and techniques. Don’t fake serial numbers or markings and don’t restore the rifle to something it was not when it retired. Above all, record and disclose all restorations when it comes time to sell the rifle. When selecting finishes, consult with knowledgeable people as to the correct period finish and application techniques. The rule of thumb regarding refinishing a firearm is that you should only do enough to repair any obvious damage or to remove a finish that was applied recently and improperly. This does not include the shellac used on Soviet firearms for long term storage. The shellac is correct for the rifle since it was applied during its service life and retired that way. A big area of contention has been re-bluing rifles. This is somewhat of a gray area as little is known about the standard bluing process used by the Russians and the Finns. It is a sure bet that the processes used today are not the same as those used 50 or 70 years ago. I would caution against re-bluing unless you are reasonably sure that it can approximate the same method and then only if it is absolutely necessary. Cold blue touchups are acceptable in my mind to eliminate surface rust that is working its way into the metal.  

Another thing to consider is that like or not, the current thinking on collectable rifles still parallels the “antiques” mentality. If your rifle is a collectable piece, it would be wise to be very careful about doing any restoration work on it if you plan to sell it in the future.

This article is offered as “food for thought” and is not an authoritative work. It merely expresses my thinking on the ethical concerns of restoration. I would urge anyone who is thinking of restoring their rifle to discuss it first on the forums and get other people’s input.
















  
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