Conserving Everyday Heritage (Repair Café I)

By Carmen Vida and Dean Sully –

Back in December 2017, we told you about how UCL Conservation staff and students had initiated the UCL Repair Café (When Heritage Mending Meets DIY Repair | Conservation Lab Chat ( This coincided with BBC2 taking up the challenge of turning heritage repair into reality TV airing a new series, The Repair Shop, presented as ‘an antidote to throwaway culture’. The series has been a real success and ‘upgraded’ to BBC1 in 2019, and then to prime time in 2020. We think that it is no coincidence that our first UCL Repair Café and the BBC Repair Shop started at the same time. This could be symptomatic of a real need for people to actively participate in caring for their valued things. The gap that a broken object leaves in our lives can be bridged by its transformation through repair. As conservators, we are aware of the joy of transforming an object as part of our work, and it is great to able to find ways to share this joy with others.  So there are mutual benefits to people and their objects in the remaking of a broken thing, so that it can once again function as expected, or as hoped.

The Repair Café also reflects the many ways that people understand heritage, not simply as the application of the Authorised Heritage Discourse to the museum objects and heritage places of our professional practice, but as an intense an intimate engagement with the stuff of everyday life. This connects us to family, to loss, to memory, in the stories that we tell of ourselves and others, and in the value we place in certain objects and places.

A large UCL Repair Café took place on 28th March 2019, entitled “Fixing a Broken Britain by Mending Things”. This was run as part of UCL’s Centre for Critical Heritage Studies Showcase Week. The thought behind it? That in an uncertain world, it makes sense to be able to fix your own stuff.  That ‘Doing-it-Together’ is more productive than ‘Doing-it-Yourself’. That repair, conservation, maintenance, should not be afterthoughts, or the special treatment we give to a few precious designated objects, but rather a central principle of sustainability and of socially and ecologically just cycles of production and consumption. ‘to repair damaged places and make flourishing multi-species futures’ (Haraway 2016, 146).

28th March 2019: another busy Repair Café in the South Cloisters at UCL

Repair Cafés do not work in the way the Repair Shop is run: we do not want people to leave their object with an ‘expert’ for them to fix, rather we want the Café to be an playful opportunity for them to learn the skills required to care for their own valued things, however ordinary they may be. In doing so, it seeks to build capacity for people to care for their own heritage in their own ways.

The musical instruments repair station

The 2019 UCL Repair Café turned out to be a thought-provoking mix of DIY, fixing hacks, and conservation, with some of the boundaries around specialist knowledge becoming blurred. Textiles conservators and Stitch in Time sewing experts, for instance, were in tables side by side, sharing practical knowledge and working with people to repair their clothes and textiles. Two different approaches that hopefully enriched each other over the few hours they worked together (there was a lot of mutual tool envy!). The juxtaposition of repair and conservation activities reveals the boundaries between everyday and heritage, to be arbitrary.

Textile Conservators and Stitch in Time sat side by side, with a very clear line of Hazard Tape marking the arbitrary distinction between Conservation and ‘the real world’

Our UCL Repair Cafés (and the popularity of the Repair Shop) highlight that although we often act as if heritage is about the past, it is really about the present and the future.  As a vehicle for sharing conservators’ skills, our Repair Café events have provided opportunities to embed our practice within the actions required for living as-well-as-possible in preferred future, more-than-human worlds. This aligns caring for heritage as an innovative response to contemporary challenges and opportunities for diverse sustainable innovation.

And talking of present and future… Our plans were for another Repair Café with conservators on site in 2020, but then 2020 “happened” and became 2021, and plans got postponed. A new Repair Café will take place once it becomes possible, so in the meantime, we have decided to dedicate a few blogs to heritage repairs and kitchen sink conservation: there may be things there that you feel you can try with some object at home that needs to be mended (disclaimer: at your own risk!).

We are hoping to deliver online Repair Cafés, and we would like to have your suggestions for what should be included. Do you have any favourite repair ‘recipes’ that could be done at home? We would like to add yours to some of ours (Kintsugi, casein-porcelain repairs, Boro, maintainsplaining, etc.)

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