The Conservation department plays a crucial role in the preparation of the Museum’s exhibitions. From the early stages of the exhibition development Conservators work closely with other members of the exhibition team, especially Curators, Designers and Registrars. Conservators make sure all selected objects undergo appropriate checks and treatments to be displayed not only in a beautiful but also in a safe way.
Before any work on an object begins, Conservators thoroughly check and document each object’s condition. Conservation photographers capture stages before, during and after conservation. During this process Conservators learn about the object, its structure, materials, condition and weak points. Frequently they are also prompted to do some research on the historic purpose or intent of the item. The results of the examinations and research determine the appropriate treatment and display. After treatment, specific object supports are then designed and usually made by the Conservators, in consultation with Curators and Designers, before the exhibition installation can commence.
The Reflections of Asia: Collectors and Collections exhibition showcases nearly 500 objects from the MAAS collection. A very large proportion had never been on display. Most of the objects required some form of intervention– from basic cleaning to complex reassembly and repairs. In addition, many of the objects required supports to ensure their stability and to enhance their function, beauty or interpretation.
The exhibition is divided based on material type, the main sections being – textiles, ceramics, wood, metals, paper and small mixed media objects. The Conservators specialising in relevant disciplines took care of the appropriate sections.
Following are several examples of conservation treatments undertaken for Reflections of Asia.
Discovering Secrets of a 19th Century Chinese Fan
This 19th Century Chinese folding fan revealed some interesting secrets under close examination, particularly when viewed under a stereo-microscope. What first appears to be a painting on the paper leaf is actually a mixed media composition. The faces of all the human figures are slivers of what appears to be ivory upon which the facial details have been painted. Additionally, every outfit is comprised of tiny pieces of a textile adhered directly to the surface, which are also painted for futher detailing. This same technique was observed on two other fans that are displayed in the exhibit in their original boxes.
An example of these details can be seen in the following photo of one of the closed fans on display.
The complexities of these materials helped determine the treatment methods used for this object. This included the cleaning of the ivory blades under magnification to ensure all the fine details were cleaned properly. The dust and debris on the surface of the decoration were removed using a fine soft brush and a low suction vacuum under a microscope to clean around the layered details to prevent any further damage to the various fragile surfaces.
Treatment of carved ivory crab with movable legs
This carved ivory crab with movable leg joints was covered with a layer of dust and dirt. Several of the dowels that connect the leg components were also missing from the joints. This had caused four sections of the legs to become detached. There was evidence of old repairs: many of the original ivory dowels had been replaced with brass pins, one of which was found loose. The mouth had also become detached due to the failure of the adhesive.
Treatment of this object was a delicate process because of the fragility of the very mobile joints, fine details of the carving with many hard to reach areas, and the high sensitivity of ivory to moisture and solvents. Cleaning of the ivory was done gradually, working on a small area at a time and using tiny cotton buds only slightly moistened with the cleaning liquid. The missing dowels were replaced with bone dowels that were carved to size and shape. The detached mouth piece was re-adhered, and the loose dowels were secured with tiny dots of an acrylic adhesive. The crab was placed on a solid Perspex block support in the display showcase to reduce the pressure on the fragile leg joints.
Treatment of a late 19th century Japanese woven basket
This late 19th century Japanese three-tiered bamboo basket was made using traditional bamboo woven craft. The finely split bamboo strips in varying widths are intricately woven using a hexagonal (Mutsume ami) base pattern to form this elegant and delicate floral design.
Over the course of its life the aged bamboo had deteriorated, with the natural properties of the strength and flexibility of bamboo being compromised, making it more susceptible to mechanical damage.
The most pressing treatment was to reinstate one of the tasseled ties that had become detached from the basket and repair the attachment loop on the side the basket which had broken in several places.
The difficulty in repairing this type of woven basketry is that the bamboo strips are under constant tension, so when there is a breakage the repair often requires some form of splint to assist with joining the pieces together and to reinforce the break.
The material chosen for the splint, as well as being sympathetic to the object, needed to possess similar properties to that of the original material and thin enough to be inserted between the inner bamboo strip and the outer wound layer. In this case bamboo, in the form of a bamboo chopstick, was used and finely shaved to the desired thickness and width.
Additional repairs were required to secure further breaks in the thinner woven layer; in this case long fiber Japanese tissue was used to reinforce the join and infill losses. Once the tissue was secured with adhesive the infill was inpainted using acrylic paints to blend with the bamboo finish.
Revealing the intricate detail on two different Japanese damascene ornaments
The lid from this Japanese incense burner had extensive iron corrosion from the base metal. The corrosion had expanded through the decorative surface hiding the fine details of the scene. In the before treatment photograph below the grapes appear as dark blobs, and the mountain on the left of the scene is hardly visible. The dry and inactive corrosion was manually removed with a bamboo skewer under a microscope.
Meanwhile, on a pair of large bronze damascene vases an unidentified coating had pooled and solidified within the recesses which had obscured their decorative details. These vases were part of a large consignment sent to the Armidale Teachers’ College during the early 1940’s, in the event of enemy attack during World War two. The coating may have dated from this period and been applied as a temporary protective layer during their storage in Armidale.
A significant amount of the coating was removed prior to the exhibition. However, a fine film remains in many areas and the vases will require further treatment in the future.
The examples above represent a small sample of the detailed and skilled work undertaken by the Conservation team in preparation for the installation of the exhibition. Reflections of Asia: Collectors and Collections is on display at the Powerhouse Museum until December 2019.
Written by: Gosia Dudek, Rebecca Ellis, Megan Hall, Skye Mitchell, Conservators, December 2018