The Australian War Memorial has a large collection of field artillery pieces from the First World War. At first glance some of them look as though they may be painted in original First World War coatings, but closer study reveals that the upper paint layers cover metal surfaces that would have been unpainted during service, or areas where battle damage has removed original coatings. These upper paint layers also are missing in a number of hard-to-get-to areas, suggesting that they are not related to the service history of the guns but to their later history as museum artefacts.
Anecdotal evidence suggests most of the guns have been displayed outside for many decades and the upper paint layers are faded, flaking and stained with corrosion. When they are required for display in new exhibitions the question arises as to whether they should be stabilized but otherwise left in their current (non-service) paint coats, or whether they should be repainted to more accurately represent the way they would have appeared when in service. Removal of non-original paint is currently not possible without irreversibly damaging original paint layers, but close study of paint cross sections reveals details of the original First World War paint layers, and raking light and surface rubbings can confirm the extent of original paint, camouflage markings and field damage.
The study of the paint is then followed by consultation with curators and other interested parties to determine whether to repaint the guns and if so, what colour or colours to use, the paint application technique and whether any attempt should be made to tone down the newness of the fresh paint. This last question can cause heated debate g many people expect that technology objects should be restored to look neat and in perfect condition, and feel that this treatment honours the object and its history. This is particularly true of military equipment, which is usually extensively cleaned and repainted for displays and parades.
Other people – especially children – often wonder whether an object which looks clean and new is real or just a fake. Conservators may wrestle with the ethics of faking damage to a new paint coat to make the object look more real. Several objects at the AWM have been partially repainted and partially left original but the difference in condition between the old and new paint can be hard to interpret. Some objects, however, have been repainted but areas such as bullet holes have been touched up to replicate damaged paint. Can this approach be further extended to replicate use-wear features such as scratches, and stains from engine oils, axle grease, adherent dirt and the like? Although in itself false, such ‘distressing’ could give the museum audience a truer appreciation of the war experience than nice, neatly restored objects which look as though they have never been near a battlefield. These guns in particular are relics of a brutal and ugly conflict that left millions dead and injured. It is hard to understand the suffering and horror of their experience, and the sacrifice they made, through a sanitised, factory floor finish. Where the original paint layers cannot be exposed and recovered, replicating these layers, with appropriate damage, may help to tell their story to a new audience.