Restoring a belt that marked an unlikely wartime friendship: lessons for culture from the BBC's TV series The Repair Shop
I was dubious about the recommendation. Would the BBC’s series The Repair Shop follow the format of the Antiques Roadshow with its financial voyeurism, or Bargain Hunt’s gamification of heritage with its breathless, leg-pumping banality? My inner cynic was wrong.
From the moment I watched presenter Jay Blades and his team of craftsmen restore an army issue leather belt from WWII, I was hooked.
The premise is a simple one. The public bring in careworn possessions and explain their emotional and symbolic significance. A team of expert craftsmen collaborate to repair the items. Restored artefacts are returned to their owners, who relive the memories ingrained in these extraordinarily eloquent, everyday objects.
The belt was brought in by siblings, Graham and Janet. It had belonged to their late father, who had worn it daily to the point of disintegration. Their father had been given the belt as a present by Franz, a German prisoner of war at the Fallingbostel internment camp in Westphalia. With rudimentary tools, Franz had decorated the leather with intricate petals and leaves, and the inscription ‘souvenir from Franz’. This evocative object, a symbol of unlikely friendship, was tenderly restored so that it could ‘return home’ to the military museum at Fallingbostel. At the start of her process, leather expert Susie Fletcher made a charcoal tracing of the belt as a keepsake for Graham and Janet: a new souvenir in this chain of connections. The episode was a performative lesson in the power of objects as capsules of meaning, memory and emotion. I’m not ashamed to say I cried. And in that moment, I joined the legion of Repair Shop fans.
Spaces of making and fixing, like The Repair Shop, have their own heritage: from the salvage culture of favela ‘bricolage’ to the iFixit wiki ‘that teaches you to fix almost anything’. Consumerism today is dominated by this rhetoric of upcycling and circularity. Selfridges is promoting RESELLFRIDGES for Christmas. IKEA has opened a store to focus on their sell-back initiative. It’s easy to idealise these projects and perhaps be sceptical of brands leaping on the bandwagon. Notwithstanding these traps of tokenism, romanticism and over-simplification, it’s thought-provoking to ask: could The Repair Shop be a metaphor for the future of our cultural sector?
Cultural and visitor attractions are in a state of emergency. There are deep-rooted, systemic challenges around their financial and operational resilience; the capacity and capabilities of resource; the diversity and democracy of representation and the relevance of programmes to connect and engage. Whether a national institution or local festival, Coronavirus has been indiscriminate. It has shaken the foundations of our cultural infrastructure. The sector has been driven by an ever-expanding growth of real estate. This model appears outmoded as we reassess our sense of place and space. The pandemic has stretched the ties of our cultural ecosystem as the symbiosis between blockbuster exhibition and stakeholder investment is threatened. With lockdown turning our theatres and galleries dark, the very nature of cultural illumination is challenged. As we press the reset button on culture, let’s replay The Repair Shop for insight and inspiration.
The Repair Shop is essentially a community that comes together to focus on a problem and fix it. It is a collective endeavour that defines what needs repair and questions what ‘good’ looks like for the owner and their object. It’s the hybrid diversity of their shared expertise that informs their ingenuity and creativity. This model of inquiry and multi-disciplinary collaboration could be a rallying cry for the sector. The approach would shift the conversation from individual narratives of shortage to focus on cultural repair as a collective project. By forging collaborations that go beyond the boundaries of the sector to embrace a multiplicity of perspectives, skills and life experiences, the sector can strengthen its representation, enhance its relevance and amplify resource.
The experts of The Repair Shop focus all their skill on an individual’s need, as with the siblings who wanted to share more widely the message of humanity ingrained in their father’s belt. Culture could reflect this responsive and empathetic approach. COVID-19 has precipitated a revolution of needs. Individually, we face a poverty of creative fuel as our cultural habits are curtailed [or is that just me?] Society seeks new ways to connect with people and place. Globally, we urgently need a philosophy of respectful inclusivity and environmental responsibility. What if an individual or community brings a request to a cultural organisation? They collaborate with a diverse range of experts to address the need. These cultural fixers find solutions for maintenance or repair in their collections, networks and creative assets. This process, extended from a micro to macro scale, could be documented to share as a new diet of cultural nourishment.
The series highlights that the art of maintenance is not about returning an object to its original form. It is a careful and caring act that sustains a web of memories, stories and connections. Achievement is not quantified by spectacle, speed or increased value [unlike the monetary metrics of the Antiques Roadshow]. It is defined through the process: small, incremental and intentional changes that have a dramatic impact on the owner. The ambition now for culture is not to return to a prelapsarian status-quo. It is a lifetime opportunity to rebuild, build better and reimagine success.
Frances Croxford is the founder of research-led cultural consultancy, The Seeking State, who create strategies for brand and retail that are ambitious, effective and transformative. Through the diverse sources in our archive, we research every brief from multiple perspectives to expand the horizons of our clients, the sector and ourselves. Clients include: Turner Contemporary, Chester Zoo, David Roberts Art Foundation and M+ Hong Kong.