Update on the Mackintosh Library

This morning I was curious to see what progress is being made on restoration and rebuilding of the Mackintosh Library at the Glasgow School of Art, damaged by fire last year. There were several articles posted in March on the subject, including this one from The Guardian covering the work of forensic archaeologists. There have been some valuable finds that will assist in reconstruction. I was also fascinated to see that some books survived in states that will allow conservation. The losses are still enormous.

The real reason I am sharing information here today, though, is another article from the Guardian, an article that explores some very interesting questions. It seems that before the fire the Mackintosh had become something closer to a museum than a working library, with students allowed only very limited access. Questions are now being raised as to what a restored Mackintosh Library should be:

Muriel Gray, chair of the board of governors (who has vowed that her first act will be to re-carve the naughty graffiti she engraved into the library woodwork as a student) has stated that the school of art “will die if it becomes a museum”. And Liz Davidson is frank. “We’re going to rebuild it all with extreme care,” she says, “then hand it over to the students to treat with extreme irreverence.”

Most of us (especially those of us with special collections) probably deal with this delicate balance to some degree: how to preserve, and still use? Where is the proper place to draw the line?

Another issue from the article also got me thinking. My undergraduate degree was in Comparative Literature and Literary Translation, and some of the issues faced by the Mackintosh restoration team reminded me of questions literary translators face. What is a faithful reproduction or translation?

The Kauri pine, from which the columns were built, was a cheap ballast material, he says, brought back in boats from New Zealand and readily available at the Glasgow shipyards. It has since become a protected species, so there are now questions over what to use instead.

Is the most faithful reproduction one that uses something that looks and feels closest to Kauri pine, or something that is closest to cheap material that can be repurposed? Is the aim to recreate, as closely as possible, what Charles Rennie Mackintosh created, or to follow as closely as possible his methods, translated into today’s materials?

These are the opportunities hidden in disaster, to question what we have done and are doing, and what our decisions mean. For my part, I hope to take this as a reminder to ask those questions while, hopefully and with good preparation, avoiding the disaster (and just as I write this, the fire alarm sounds… we are having some work done to improve our patchwork of fire alarm and suppression systems).