Old art is in safe hands

Old art is in safe hands

In place

Art conservators working on artwork.

Ancient Indian artworks display the creative, narrative prowess of the erstwhile artisans. They are timeless pieces, which when arrayed in an eloquent manner, can offer thought-provoking glimpses of history.

So, Indian artwork has to be enriched and made accessible to the community. An upcoming mission located in Bengaluru — the Museum of Art and Photography (MAP) — aspires to bring out India’s artistic heritage.

With its collection, MAP will represent South India’s first major, private state-of-the-art museum. MAP has collaborated with Tata Trusts for this ambitious venture.

In frame

Recently, MAP launched a photography conservation centre, which will specialise in conservation and restoration of old photographs.

Unlike stone, textile or metal, photography is chemical-based and will not survive through centuries if not adequately safeguarded. Photography conservation, thereby, involves a completely different set of techniques that requires specialised training, equipment and skill.

Conservation methods can range from repair of a simple tear to complex treatment such as stain removal.

The center is well-equipped with specially designed movable tables needed to conveniently spread out the most sizable artefacts and work on them.

The museum has a significant collection of photographs dating back to the 1850s. This is a vital part of Indian culture and conserving it with cutting-edge technology becomes essential.

Besides being time-worn and physically disintegrated, the photos can present other issues. Over a period of time, fluctuations in humidity and temperature leads to structural damage, exposure to light causes yellowing and fading, moisture leads to stickiness and discolouration, and insects and rodents could have eaten the paper. Improper handling and/or storage can further impair their form.

The technique

“Restoration process depends upon the condition of the picture,” states Rajeev Choudhary, the centre’s art conservator, as he took us around the centre. Before commencing the work, a written documentation of the picture’s plight and its problems are made, followed by a photographic documentation.

Then, the picture is examined with the naked eye and then under a USB microscope. Blotting paper is used to absorb excess moisture, if any. Superficial cleansing is done, after which the picture is treated chemically with a mild solvent. Also, pictures affected with fungus and/or spores are treated in the fumigation chamber.

There is a fume extractor that assures safety of the staff working in the area. The needful mending is ensured with utmost care. The crucial aspect is that the whole process must be reversible. At any juncture, the original form should be retrievable because of the likelihood of newer techniques arising. So, a protective coating is smeared prior to applying any colour.

If the picture is fragile, lining is given for auxiliary support and stability. The finalised photograph is digitised. “When a portion of a picture is recreated, like by adding colour or replacing the torn parts or holes, it is called restoration, or else it is conservation,” Choudhary pointed out the difference.

In the conservation centre, historical photographs, negatives, transparencies and prints are stored and have the back-up of retrieval mechanisms. In place are also the best practice methods for handling and displaying them. The centre aims to work on the museum’s own historical collection and photographs, and from external sources as well. By field surveys, they do acquire artefacts from other collections and help them sustain and preserve their antique treasures.

With the aim of establishing and strengthening art conservation centres across India, and to create a cohort of trained art conservators, a 10-day workshop will be held from 20 to 30 September at MAP. The training course is for practicing conservators on conservation of works on paper — prints, drawings and maps. 

For further information on training, log on to www.map-india.org/conservation-of-paper-training.