21 March, 2023

From the Archives: Art Conservation Resurgence Project

The Art Conservation Resurgence Project, or ACRP, was a Tata Trusts supported, three-year, muti-faceted programme conducted at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), Mumbai. Keenly titled, the project sought to strengthen the art conservation movement in India through a series of components segregated across four main areas- conservation-restoration of objects; research projects on complex or unique conservation-related issues; training in conservation practices; and dissemination.

The methodology of the project relied on building a core team of conservators exhibiting different skill sets, which would be able to bifurcate their focus across these four components. Field visits and travel were a critical component of the project in order to build partnerships with different institutes across India, be it for training, research or outreach. The mainstay of the project was to conserve objects following best practices of condition assessment, documentation and treatment. The project timelines were planned in a staggered manner, where the conservation of objects in the lab was a constant activity throughout the project period; followed by field visits for collaboration, research and training that punctuated the timeline with increasing frequency as the project evolved; and dissemination and outreach activities were planned for the latter half of the project, including the building of a website where the research could be housed.

Conservators undertaking the conservation of an oil painting at the CSMVS conservation centre, during the ACRP project
Conservators undertaking the conservation of an oil painting at the CSMVS conservation centre, during the ACRP project

The programme relied on the in-built capacity of the CSMVS art conservation centre, the seed support for which was initially given by the Trusts in the 2000s. Over the years, the CSMVS art conservation centre built a dedicated lab and workforce, committed to not just conservation work, but also outreach and training.

The 3-year-long programme, primarily concentrated on the conservation of selected objects from the CSMVS collection across ten different materials, prepared case studies that proved useful for in-house trainings. Field visits were also undertaken to different institutes to initiate collaborations and conduct short-duration trainings in preventive conservation, like at the Tawang Monastery in Arunachal Pradesh, the Basgo monastery in Leh, NGMA Bangalore, Goa Museum of Christian Art, site visits in Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan. In parallel, research was being conducted at CSMVS on topics such as identifying appropriate solvents to remove discolored varnishes from objects; removal of bat stains from cultural sites; use of lasers for cleaning objects; creating a database of pigments used in Indian art, damage mapping of specific materials etc.  Outreach activities included poster exhibitions on conservation care, and paper presentations that served to build awareness and create networking opportunities for art conservation professionals – young as well as seasoned.

While the programme was successfully concluded, its limitations included making the research and data accessible in an open and comprehensive manner. A website was built to hold this research and data, but one that over time was not updated, and was eventually lost.

While it may not be apt to deem the Indian art conservation sector as a nascent sector, it’s not developed either. The sector requires consistent ‘resurgence’ – not just in terms of infrastructure, trainings and funds – but also model projects that can showcase the potential of art conservation as a necessary service in the realm of cultural heritage and one that can sustain cultural institutes and their collections. The impact of the ACRP can be seen in the strengthening of CSMVS’ in-house conservation capacity, including embarking on conservation-related research. However it fell short of achieving its dissemination goals for the conservation sector at large.