28 January, 2022

A Framework for Training in Art Conservation

Tata Trusts’ Art Conservation Initiative aims to build a network of art conservation professionals through intensive training courses in the conservation of specific materials

Participant-conservators at KIAC setting and flattening a waterlogged oil painting, using a strategy devised by course mentor Sanjay Dhar
Participant-conservators at KIAC setting and flattening a waterlogged oil painting, using a strategy devised by course mentor Sanjay Dhar
Participant-conservators at KIAC setting and flattening a waterlogged oil painting, using a strategy devised by course mentor Sanjay Dhar
Participant-conservators at KIAC setting and flattening a waterlogged oil painting, using a strategy devised by course mentor Sanjay Dhar

“Our perception of conservation has changed quite a bit after attending this course,” says Kartick Kayal, a participant-conservator in the 3-month intensive, hands-on Training Course in Conservation of Oil Paintings, part of the Tata Trusts’ Art Conservation Initiative.

Training lacunae

The country, despite its rich cultural legacy evidenced in the thousands of art objects, artefacts and heritage sites, lacks a framework for art conservation. A well-articulated framework needs to focus on simultaneously building up the infrastructure and people required to manage the care and preservation of its millennia-old heritage. Though there are approximately 1,000 museums in the country, only 1-2 per cent of them have conservation labs or trained conservators who can manage the care of their collections.

Exacerbating this situation is the lack of adequate training courses that can provide quality formal training to future art conservation professionals, who can positively impact conservation projects and collections-based institutes with whom they work. There is just one government-aided Master’s degree in Art Conservation, and a handful of post graduate diploma courses that focus on museology, conservation and curation. Moreover, the courses offered by universities or private museums focus on preventive and remedial conservation of artefacts, and not specifically on the conservation of specific materials such as paper, oil paintings, stone or metals. The courses also exclude conservators with field experience who are looking for an opportunity to upgrade their skills in specific materials. Art conservators in India currently develop their niche while they work on projects. With no formal roadmap in hand, many of them segue into allied work like archiving, museology, curation, or cultural programming.

Reframing art conservation

In 2018, the Trusts conceptualised the Art Conservation Initiative to lay a framework for art conservation in India by focusing on infrastructure, training, and outreach. In 2019, the Trusts partnered with five institutes across India – Himalayan Society for Heritage and Art Conservation, Ranibagh; Mehrangarh Museum Trust, Jodhpur; Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Mumbai; Anamika Kala Sangam Trust, Kolkata; and Museum of Art and Photography, Bengaluru.

To be spread across four years, the initiative aims to:

  • Establish and upgrade conservation labs at all five institutes
  • Hire and train three conservators at each institute
  • Conduct field surveys in smaller collections and help impart preventive conservation training
  • Train conservators through training courses in specific materials.

In addition, the initiative will also establish a Master’s degree in Art Conservation at an Indian university.

One of the key objectives of the initiative, as highlighted above, is to design, develop and implement training courses in the conservation of specific materials. These training courses were initially planned as 10-day workshops to be offered annually with incrementally advanced levels. Having lost time to the pandemic, however, the courses were redesigned in 2020 and offered instead as intensive 3-month training courses, followed by a one-month internship. The reformatting of the courses allowed for a more focused vision of the programme, viz., to train practicing conservators up to a critical standard and produce material-specific conservation professionals; to build faculty for conservation training programmes; and to format a replicable training module that could be applied to varied materials and scaled to institutes outside of the programme in time.

The first two of these 3-month training courses were completed by December 2021 – Training Course in Conservation of Oil Paintings at Kolkata Institute of Art Conservation (KIAC); and the Training Course in Conservation-Restoration of Stone Objects and Sculptures at Himalayan Society for Heritage and Art Conservation (HIMSHACO), Ranibagh. Each training course was developed and led by an externally engaged course mentor who is an expert conservator in that material, aided by the Academic Consultant of the Trusts’ Art Conservation Initiative. The course mentor for the Training Course in Conservation of Oil Paintings was senior art conservator Sanjay Dhar; and the course mentors for the Training Course in Conservation-Restoration of Stone Sculptures and Objects were Ashwin Pundalik (geologist), Ravi Gundurao (conservation architect), and Anupam Sah (Conservator and Academic Consultant, Art Conservation Initiative). A course anchor was also engaged on-site for three months to supervise the participants’ work, and to report on, and document the course. Visiting faculty were engaged as required for specific technical sessions.

The methodology followed for both courses focused on developing a curriculum that emphasised practical training and allowed participants to work on objects from start to finish. This included: condition assessment and documentation; preparing a treatment plan; commencing cleaning and repair processes as required; consolidation of objects; documentation of the restored object; and final presentation.

Training – course and impact

Ten conservators were trained in these two courses – five in each programme. The focus was on teaching participants to think critically and make sound conservation decisions independently, instead of following set procedures for conservation treatment. With participants coming from varied educational and professional backgrounds, the courses also focused on improving their writing, documentation and presentation skills so that they evolved together as conservators capable of tackling complex conservation issues. As part of the evaluation process, each participant-conservator made a final presentation and exhibited their work on-site, helping them foreground their conservation efforts not only for the benefit of evaluators assessing their work, but also to other staff and members of the public visiting the site. All ten participant-conservators are now engaged in their one-month long internships that are a necessary facet to gauge how they utilise the knowledge and skills learnt during the courses.

“This course has taught us to think critically,” says Mr Kayal. “It has taught us the process of conservation step by step – from how to use photography and other computer-based applications for the benefit of conservation to how to devise conservation equipment using locally sourced materials and simple techniques.”
 “The course gave us a whole new perspective,” agrees fellow-participant, Upasya Ghosh. “It not only taught us new and innovative analysis methods but it also taught us a different approach towards conservation as a subject.”

Isha Mukherjee, a participant-conservator in the training course in Conservation-Restoration of Stone Objects and Sculptures at HIMSHACO, is equally enthusiastic. Ms Mukherjee, who had completed her undergraduate studies in conservation in the UK, had been exposed to western methods of conservation of artefacts. “This training course in stone [conservation] has given me deeper insights into the methods, treatment technique and processes pertaining to stone conservation in India. Objects cannot speak for themselves,” she adds, “I’d like to advocate for them in any small way possible.”

When their internships are completed, each participant-conservator will be awarded a certificate of completion and a commendation as deemed fit by the course leader for each course.

While training of conservators is a crucial outcome of these courses, so is the building up of faculty. By instituting on-site course anchors, who are also practicing conservators, it is hoped that they can evolve into becoming course mentors for future training courses. Identifying visiting faculty for specific sessions also helps in creating a directory of trainers for different materials and aspects of their conservation.

Rajesh Poojari, who was the course anchor for the training course in Conservation-Restoration of Stone Objects and Sculptures at HIMSHACO is impressed by how much he learnt. “This is a one-of-its-kind course,” he says. “The content was sufficient for a full-fledged one-year diploma programme. My cognitive grasp of the subject expanded along with the trainees,” he adds. Not only that, engaging with the course as an on-site anchor helped him become more prepared and to connect with people in varied disciplines such as academia, business, art history and cultural heritage.

The future beckons

Soon, these ten conservators will have raised the standard expected of art conservators on independent projects and collections-based institutes. They will help change the way we approach art conservation as a viable job sector and highlight the importance of a well-conserved collection as an asset for any museum.

The developed training modules can be used by the respective institutes as independent training capsules for external conservators. As the pilot round, the cost of these courses was covered under grant funding, but by charging tuition fees to cover the faculty costs, the institutions can make future courses self-sustainable.

What’s next

The successful completion of these two training courses has given the Trusts the confidence to plan and implement the remaining eight training courses in different materials, to be held at these five institutes during 2022-23. The third training course in the Conservation of Paper – Prints, Drawings and Maps is scheduled to begin at the Museum of Art and Photography in March 2022. The planning for the other courses has already commenced – these include training courses in conservation of metals, illustrated manuscripts and miniature paintings, textiles, wall paintings, photographs etc.

The aim of this programme is to train a minimum of 50 conservation professionals across ten different materials by the end of the project period. The graduating conservators from these courses will add to the workforce in art conservation in India and help build a network of professionals in the field who can be recommended for future conservation projects.

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