April 2013 | Cynthia Rodrigues

Art conservation gets a boost

An art conservation project supported by the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust is enabling the protection of India's cultural heritage, while reviving indigenous preservation practices and encouraging restoration

There is a quiet revolution brewing at the Museum Art Conservation Centre (MACC) of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS). MACC is one of the leading heritage conservation departments in India and under the guidance of CSMVS’s director general, Sabyasachi Mukherjee, a project is taking shape that has the potential to positively impact the Government of India’s national policy for art conservation.

Supported by the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust (SDTT) through its media, art and culture portfolio, MACC is working to strengthen traditional and contemporary practices of art conservation in India. The ‘Art conservation resurgence project’ has been conceived and designed by Anupam Sah, head of art conservation, research and training at MACC in collaboration with SDTT.

In its first phase — backed by an SDTT grant of about Rs31 million, which will be given over a span of three years — the project aims to build expertise in art conservation by training staff from museums and institutions across India, publishing handbooks on specific aspects of art conservation, and establishing methods, systems and protocols that will be shared with practitioners.

The trust was one of the organisations that helped set up MACC four years ago. At the time the centre was primarily an in-house resource, geared to looking after the museum’s own collection. As it grew, establishing technical, research and educational divisions for providing help to other institutions, it earned a reputation for competency in art restoration. MACC also realised the need to improve India’s art conservation practices.

Despite a great dependence on Western conservation thought, “the trust found a dearth of information and understanding about contemporary practices,” says Niyati Mehta, programme officer at the SDTT media, art and culture section. “Alongside, traditional systems were being ignored, which is why the project aimed to prioritise meeting this gap.”

‘There are gaps’
“Art collections in India have been deteriorating because of a poor understanding of the mechanisms of damage, with few models or reference documents for the Indian context,” explains Mr Sah. “We have practised conservation on the basis of world practices, but when things are not understood or created firsthand, there are gaps.”

For example, conservation books authored in Europe might suggest that 18-20ºC is the ideal temperature for storing or displaying paintings in a collection. But, in India, setting the same temperature can damage the paintings. “When air gets cold it loses its capacity to hold moisture,” says Mr Sah. “The moment the air conditioner is switched off, the humid conditions in India often cause condensation.”

The MACC project is grounded in the belief that training people and giving them the wherewithal to engage in conservation is the key to caring for our heritage. It holds also that it is imperative to make the best of ancient and contemporary conservation practices. Towards this end, it began a search for information available in regional Indian languages, such that is accessible to conservators at museums and custodians of private collections.

In the first phase the project involves surveying and compiling literature on various remedial conservation treatments developed around the world. The team also researches indigenous systems and translates the literature into English, as a first step towards making the learning available to everyone across this multilingual country.

With university education and technical literature in India available predominantly in English, there has been an unfortunate loss of vernacular knowledge. “Thousands of years of civilisation led to the evolution of our arts traditions, with each region having its own distinct culture and language, rich in its own arts development and conservation practices,” says Mr Sah. But that knowledge has eroded, leaving only traces of the original practice.

“There are various rituals like bathing idols in milk and honey, but the impact of these on the object is not properly known,” adds Mr Sah. “The fact that these objects have survived over millennia means that something was done right. There is an enormous depth of knowledge in this subcontinent — rich in concept, thought and practice, encompassing materials, technologies and indigenous skills.”

Gathering knowledge
To enhance knowledge of these ancient practices and to document them for wide dissemination, the project focused on specific art objects that are most commonly found across the country and studied them for their maintenance systems.

Since it was launched in February 2012, the art conservation resurgence project has focused on the following types of art collections: oil paintings, miniatures, manuscripts, stone and terracotta, textiles, ceramics and glass, metals, photographs, paintings on cloth, and polychrome on wood.

Says Mandira Chhabra, an assistant conservator at MACC: “The documentation of what we glean from the literature surveys, field work and site collaborations will also record diagnoses of the causes of deterioration and make recommendations on approaches towards conservation treatments for various types of art objects.”

As the project evolved, institutions in India and around the world began to take notice. Says Nidhi Shah, the project coordinator from MACC: “A few individuals can make a limited impact; so we decided to build collaborations across the country. We thought of enhancing it into a movement for building standards and protocols for art conservation in the country.”

Besides art conservators, the project also targets a host of public, private collections and institutions, such as granthaghars (libraries), mathas (monasteries), schools, colleges, universities, technical institutions and organisations like the Indian Railways and the Indian Army.

Institutional help
The aim is to collaborate in the preparation of the documents. MACC has already tied up with institutions in eight states, among these the Basgo Welfare Society near Leh, the National Museum Institute in Delhi, the Salar Jung Museum in Hyderabad, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, the Institute of Indology in Ahmedabad, the Himalayan Society for Heritage and Art Conservation, and various academic institutions. These centres are to be developed as hubs for the project in their respective states.

The team is also working on a core medical directory that will help in assessing the extent and type of damage suffered by art objects. It will describe the impact of climatic conditions and of different types of pollution. It will spell out the atmospheric pollution levels in select Indian cities, and detail how people can test the level of pollution in their display cases. It will also carry a list of emergency treatments that may be undertaken.

The directory will offer suggestions on practical details of conservation, such as the kind of frame to be used for different types of painting, the mounting of these frames, the types of canvases available and so on. It will also provide inputs on the use of diagnostic tools — ultraviolet light, for instance — to assess the damage done to an object.

MACC is structured to have a specific focus through various specialised units. The technical analysis unit and the research and development unit are at the heart of the effort. While the former supports CSMVS as well as other institutions with its expertise in examining art pieces (through advanced techniques using tools such as ultraviolet fluorescence, microscopy, spectroscopy and x-rays), the latter works with external agencies to study various art conservation techniques and models. The conservation and restoration unit is responsible for proposing treatment protocols for damaged art pieces as measures to prevent damage.

Technical support
A technical support unit helps ensure that art pieces at CSMVS (and when loaned to exhibitions elsewhere) are maintained appropriately. The unit also helps evaluate proposed acquisitions and offers advise on the desirable environment within the museum as well as on required upgrades. In addition, there are the documentation and education units as well as the conservation status reports unit.

The project aims to strengthen the practice of conservation in India through documentation, research, education and training. Mr Sah believes that the project could help practitioners and custodians of cultural heritage dwell on critical questions relating to the professional standards of conservation, and the benefits of the various treatment procedures in diverse Indian environments and contexts. This can help conservators in India to successfully ensure the longevity of India’s cultural heritage.

Mr Sah says, “The resurgence project is a grounded project with immense positive implications for the conservation of cultural heritage in India and across the world.”

User-focused research
The team at the ‘art conservation resurgence project’ is working on research programmes that address practical issues such as the use of lasers in art conservation, preparation of a compendium of pigments and other art materials, use of solvents in conservation, identification of microbiological growth on art objects, and gaseous pollutants that affect museum collections. Other initiatives include the setting up of analytical facilities to study art objects, health and safety in a conservation facility, etc.

The project has undertaken research in five areas thus far:

  1. Looking for solutions to protect artefacts in India from microbial attacks.
  2. Identification of appropriate solvents to dissolve and remove discoloured varnishes from ancient Indian artefacts.
  3. Removal of stains caused by bats at heritage sites.
  4. Use of lasers in art conservation in the Indian context.
  5. Creation of a database of ancient pigments used in Indian art.

The learning from these research projects will help develop protocols and case studies for various conservation-related activities, such as the best way to transport fragile items, disaster planning, ways to make the work environment toxin-free, and how to dispose of waste in a safe and responsible manner.

All the findings and resultant documentation will be disseminated online for free, as well as through exhibitions and books presented through various mass media and distribution channels.