25 September, 2020

Reviews of partners and training activities under the Trusts’ Art Conservation Initiative

Establishing a pan-India network in art conservation under this initiative, our partners are engaged in setting up conservation centres, training conservators in specific materials, and conducting field surveys for smaller collections

Establishing the conservation centre at MAP

The Museum of Art & Photography (MAP), Bengaluru, was all set to open its doors to the public in December 2020. While the pandemic has of course delayed these plans, MAP is still striving to keep its promised deadline, albeit with a few changes – instead of an on-ground public launch, they will be officially opening digitally.

Conservators at work at the MAP Conservation Centre
Conservators at work at the MAP Conservation Centre

A key aspect of a digital launch is the start of a digitising process that will allow most objects in its 20,000-strong collection to be viewed from its new website. Viewing will now be mediated virtually, but this still involves all the work necessary to exhibit these works. Each object will need to be taken out of storage, dusted and cleaned, checked for damage or signs of deterioration, if any, and made ready for photographing. The conservation team will be responsible for ensuring international standards of conservation and preservation as they prepare objects for display in time for the digital launch of MAP.

Tata Trusts partnered with MAP in early 2019 to help establish their conservation unit, under the Trusts’ Art Conservation Initiative. While MAP’s new building is under construction, the Conservation Centre was set up in a rented space, located opposite the new museum site. This will ensure ease of relocation when the new building is up and running next year. The other objectives of this project include: the hiring and training of three conservators who have formed the core conservation team at MAP; planning and executing two annual training courses in material conservation, where up to 15 practicing conservators are trained; and conducting up to four field surveys annually that includes the condition assessment of smaller collections and preparing proposals for their conservation. Under the Tata Trusts Art Conservation Initiative, MAP is our partner for the southern region, with its outreach extending to the neighbouring states.

Burnishing the lined poster to remove any air bubbles that may form
Burnishing the lined poster to remove any air bubbles that may form
First Year In

The five-year partnership with MAP commenced in January 2019 and till date, the three conservators who have been hired are in-charge of managing and conserving MAP’s collection. Through the first year, one training course in conservation of prints, maps and drawings was successfully organised. While a second training course on conservation of photographs was planned for March 2020, it has been postponed to next year due to the pandemic. MAP’s conservation team has also conducted one field survey where the manuscript collection at the Oriental Research Institute, Mysore was assessed.

Participants and faculty at the training course on Conservation of Paper – II (Prints, Maps & Drawings) held at MAP Conservation Centre in September 2019
Participants and faculty at the training course on Conservation of Paper – II (Prints, Maps & Drawings) held at MAP Conservation Centre in September 2019
Training Activities

One of the objectives of the Trusts’ Art Conservation Initiative is to conduct two annual training courses on material conservation. In the case of MAP, the materials they are focussing on are paper (prints, maps and drawings) and photographs. With an enviable poster and a rich photograph collection, MAP was best suited to start building capacity in the conservation and restoration of these two materials. Eventually, MAP will become a centre that offers specialised training across these two materials.

The first training course on conservation of Paper (Prints, Maps and Drawings) was conducted from September 20-30, 2019 at the MAP Conservation Centre, where 14 participants were trained (these included the three conservators from MAP, as well as one conservator from each of the other four institutes under the Tata Trusts Art Conservation Initiative). Planned as a basic level course (Level 1), the course focussed on hands-on training in identifying signs of deterioration in prints; how to deal with water and tide marks commonly found in posters and drawings; treatment and chromatic integration of coloured prints; lining, mounting and re-housing techniques. While these sessions made up the bulk of the course, undertaken by expert conservators, the course also included lectures on the history of printmaking, historical development of maps, and understating form and material in drawings. These sessions were conducted by archivists and historians with deep knowledge of these forms in India. A one-day visit was organised to the printmaking studio at Srishti College of Art, Design and Technology where the participants made prints under the guidance of the head printmaker.

The course ended with a viva session as well as a written test for all participants, designed simultaneously as a review of the entire course, and to gauge the level of understanding of each participant. These grades are not shared with the participants and serve the purpose of helping understand the base level of knowledge and practical competence against a particular material, to inform the structures of the subsequent advanced level training courses.

While the in-house conservators underwent training in these courses, they also imparted training during the field surveys conducted. Planned as a short exercise to document the condition of the collection of an institute, one of the objectives of the field survey is to train on-site staff in preventive conservation methods, specific to their collection. The staff at Oriental Research Institute, Mysore, participated enthusiastically in the short prevention conservation workshop undertaken by the MAP staff during their field survey. The conservation team will also prepare a conservation proposal for them, where they are proposing to focus on one section of the collection that contains approximately 300 manuscripts – cleaning, repair and re-housing of the manuscripts will be undertaken. This proposal will be shared with the institute to apply for funding for conservation projects.

Participants undertaking lining of maps during the Conservation of Paper – II (Prints, Maps & Drawings) training course
Participants undertaking lining of maps during the Conservation of Paper – II (Prints, Maps & Drawings) training course
Way Ahead

With the ongoing pandemic disrupting planned activities for most organisations, the Art Conservation Initiative has devised online learning initiatives for the conservators engaged at the five partner institutes. These include bi-weekly review sessions with the Academic Consultant where an object case study is presented by the conservators and discussed with their peers; and reading material is shared on specific material conservation related topics that are reviewed. The restriction on mobility has allowed the conservators more time to study and review the conservation projects they initiated in the past year, to finalise reports and prepare conservation proposals, and to plan for conducting field surveys within city limits when it is safe to do so.

The team is also getting ready to contact smaller collections for field surveys, an intervention that will be welcome by many collections as with the pandemic-resultant shortage of staff on premises, collections have undoubtedly suffered.

A feedback exercise conducted in May 2020 revealed that apart from hands-on conservation work, the three conservators at MAP are also keen to learn how to set-up and run a conservation lab, prepare reports and proposals, and plan and implement conservation-related training courses and workshops. But the most affirmative feedback from the team has been the interaction they have had with other conservators and institutes that has helped create a stronger network in a field where there isn’t one and helped them bridge gaps in knowledge.

The growth of the MAP Conservation Centre is an example in best practices of a collaboration exercise between allied visions – that of Tata Trusts’ Art Conservation Initiative, and its five partner institutes.

Supporting the Kolkata Institute of Art Conservation

In 2018, Kolkata Centre for Creativity, a unit of Anamika Kala Sangam Trust (est. 1986), was inaugurated to propagate the vision of “build(ing) a culture through art and craft with a global network of institutes, governments and people public partnerships, using research, documentation, conservation, display and public engagement as enablers”. The multi-storeyed Kolkata Centre for Creativity houses, amongst various other services like exhibition halls, amphitheatre, dance studio, a café and library, the Kolkata Institute of Art Conservation (KIAC) that was established with the support of Tata Trusts under its Art Conservation Initiative.

Conservators at work at KIAC, Kolkata
Conservators at work at KIAC, Kolkata

Anamika Kala Sangam Trust (AKST) is the zonal partner for the eastern region, under the Tata Trusts Art Conservation Initiative, with its outreach in the states neighbouring West Bengal. Located in Kolkata, a city with a strong literary and artistic heritage, the establishment of a full-fledged conservation lab at KIAC is a welcome step towards creating a hub for art conservation. Moreover, its proximity and cultural ties to the north east region will aid KIAC in becoming a centre of pedagogy and learning that can assist collections and institutes in the neighbouring states in better preserving their collections through field surveys; and offer training opportunities to practicing conservators through the annual material workshops conducted under the Art Conservation Initiative.

First Year In

The four-year partnership with AKST commenced in February 2019. One year into the programme, three young conservators have been hired who are in-charge of the Kolkata Institute of Art Conservation (KIAC). They are responsible not only for undertaking conservation work of the Emami art collection and other private collectors, but also for helping set up processes for the functioning of the conservation lab, identifying procurement needs of the centre, and arranging the annual material conservation workshops through the year. Two ten-days long workshops have been conducted till date, and the conservators have undertaken two field surveys – one at Assam State Museum in Guwahati, and the other at Tripura State Museum. Besides this, the conservators attended six conservation workshops across the other four institutes under the Art Conservation Initiative, ensuring that their knowledge of several materials was consolidated at the basic level.

Training Activities

In fulfilment of one of the objectives of the Art Conservation Initiative (ACI), KIAC organised two material conservation workshops for ten-days each. The first workshop was on Conservation of Paper, with a focus on Illustrated Manuscripts held in August 2019, which saw 15 conservators participate (including 7 conservators that are working at different institutes under the ACI). Planned as a basic level course (Level 1), the workshop focussed on hands-on training in identifying signs of deterioration in manuscripts, paper-making and ink-making techniques, handling-detaching-rearranging of manuscript folios for conservation treatment, repair and lining techniques and more. While these sessions undertaken by field experts made up the bulk of the course, the course also included lectures by academics and library custodians on the histories of the different kinds of manuscripts across the major regions of India. Short field visits to the Asiatic Society and the Manuscript Resource Centre helped participants observe the storage, handling, and preventive conservation methods for manuscripts in archives.

Participants during the Conservation of Oil Paintings workshop, undertaking surface cleaning of a canvas
Participants during the Conservation of Oil Paintings workshop, undertaking surface cleaning of a canvas

The second workshop on Conservation of Oil Paintings was conducted in January 2020, and 14 participants attended this course. The highlights of the ten-day course included an orientation visit to the Victoria Memorial Hall Oil Paintings galleries accompanied by the restoration team at the museum, mounting and framing of canvas, removal of fungus, dirt and debris from canvas surfaces, consolidation techniques of brittle paint and pigments, lining and filling of oil paintings and retouching. While senior conservators conducted the majority of the practical lessons in the workshops, lectures were organised that showed case studies on conservation of oil paintings, and a review of oil paintings by Indian artists.

Both workshops ended with a viva session as well as a written test for all participants, designed simultaneously as a review of the entire course, and to gauge the level of understanding of each participant. These grades were not shared with the participants. They serve the purpose of helping understand the base level of knowledge and practical competence against a particular material, to inform the structures of the subsequent advanced level workshops.

Participants during the Conservation of Paper (Illustrated Manuscripts) workshop, learning how to properly line fragile manuscripts leaves
Participants during the Conservation of Paper (Illustrated Manuscripts) workshop, learning how to properly line fragile manuscripts leaves

While the in-house conservators undertook training in these workshops, they also imparted training during the field surveys conducted. Planned as a short exercise to document the condition of the collection of an institute, one of the objectives of the field survey is to train on-site staff in preventive conservation methods, specific to their collection. Both visits witnessed enthusiastic participation from the staff, and engendered discussion on best practices between the two institutes. The conservation team will also prepare a conservation proposal for each institute, based on what they identified as the key areas of focus, that will be shared with the institute to apply for funding for conservation projects.

Way Ahead

With the ongoing pandemic disrupting planned activities for most organisations, the Art Conservation Initiative has devised online learning initiatives for the conservators engaged at the five zonal centres. In addition, KIAC too is re-structuring their calendars to shift focus on research and development for conservation and restoration projects, and knowledge sharing. The restriction of mobility has allowed conservators more time to study and review the conservation projects they initiated in the past year, to finalise reports and prepare conservation proposals, and to plan for conducting field surveys within city limits when it is safe to do so.

A feedback exercise conducted in May 2020 revealed that two out of the three KIAC conservators were keen to work on the art of East Bengal and the NER, where they also hail from; they also expressed challenges faced during the first year that ranged from admin-related issues of organising timely workshops, to conservation-specific problems faced in the course of their work. The growth of the KIAC team and centre in the first year of the project is an example in best practices of a collaboration exercise between allied visions – that of Tata Trusts’ Art Conservation Initiative, and its five zonal partners.