Spotlight | Art

The Museum of Art and Photography in Bengaluru is opening a photography conservation centre

Conservators at work

Conservators at work   | Photo Credit: Museum of Art & Photography

It will specialise in the restoration of photography but will also work on conserving paintings, sculptures,textiles etc.

Photography has never had it so good. Thanks to the explosion of the Internet, information and mobile cameras, the medium has a newfound relevance. What with the scholarly work, exhibitions, discussions, museums, dedicated biennales and fairs building a discourse around it!

“Everyone is looking at archives now that they never thought about earlier. They feel there is a need to perpetuate the history of their organisation. There is a renewed interest not only in art circles but also in corporate and academic ones to treat photographs as important historical evidence,” says Anupam Sah, Academic Consultant, Tata Trusts Art Conservation Initiative.

The Museum of Art & Photography (MAP) in Bengaluru is rolling out a new conservation centre that will specialise in the restoration of photography but will also work on conserving paintings, sculptures, textiles, etcetera. For the endeavour, MAP has partnered with Tata Trusts in Mumbai — Tata Group’s charitable arm — which has also extended financial support to the project.

To begin with, the 2,000-sq. ft lab will be housed temporarily in a building on Kasturba Road. Once the museum, now under construction on the same road, is complete, the lab will move to occupy an entire floor. With three conservators on board, the lab is likely to start full-fledged operations in another two–three weeks.

Risk factor

The museum has significant holdings of the T.S. Satyan and Deepak Puri collections and the Jyoti Bhatt Archives. Nathaniel Gaskell, Associate Director and co-founder, MAP, says the conservators will first go through the whole collection and determine what needs to be done urgently. “We will first evaluate the risk factor and start restoring the images accordingly. Also, the upcoming exhibitions and loans will be considered for their urgent upkeep,” he adds.

In this photograph from 1913 titled ‘Garden Party Agency Sutna’ we can see yellowing/ ageing of mount, loss of material and stains.

In this photograph from 1913 titled ‘Garden Party Agency Sutna’ we can see yellowing/ ageing of mount, loss of material and stains.   | Photo Credit: Museum of Art & Photography

The lab will reach out to other museums and institutions that have large collections of photographs but not the necessary expertise to conserve them. Tata Trusts intends the centre to disseminate the know-how amongst other institutions across south India.

“Photographic conservation is very niche and Tata wanted us to take the lead in this field. We hope to conserve historical photographs, negatives, transparencies and prints, ensure proper storage and retrieval mechanisms, digitise collections and create best practice procedures for their future handling and display. There will be annual material conservation workshops and field surveys of smaller collections too,” says Gaskell, the author of Photography in India: A visual history from the 1850s to the present.

Sah lays emphasis on preventive rather than remedial conservation, more so for photographs. “Conservation of photographs has two layers: the first deck is taking care of photographs and storing them carefully. The second deck is about conservation or restoration. 90% of the effort goes into the first one. You have to take care of them while they are still around.”

Unlike a canvas where you have several layers to work on, Sah says, a photograph allows for limited intervention. “Because it’s just some atoms of light that are trained on something. Once that image is gone, the whole thing is gone. So you have to take care of an image at the first level. There are particular materials that are very good and safe to keep photographs in contact with, such as acid-free paper, polyester sleeves and alpha-cellulose paper.” In India, apart from heat and dust, bright sunlight is another major reason for the fading of images.

Once an image is past the first stage and reaches a conservator’s desk, the prescribed process begins. First, the image is documented photographically and in writing; this is followed by cleaning. Then comes the mending of patches and tears. If the object is weak, it is lined. For consolidation, an adhesive is imprinted into the layer to settle its cracks and tears. Digital restoration also takes place in parallel, just in case the object proves too fragile.

Stains possibly caused by moisture or adhesive can be seen on the support/ mount of this image of Captain Pratap Singh of Rewa from 1916.

Stains possibly caused by moisture or adhesive can be seen on the support/ mount of this image of Captain Pratap Singh of Rewa from 1916.   | Photo Credit: Museum of Art & Photography

Arsenal of tools

The lab is being prepared for the job with equipment like the Leica microscope — a flexible microscope for artwork — ultrasonic piezo humidifiers that clean the object with steam pressure and mobile filtering extractors that help clear the air, especially when using chemicals. There’s a fumigation room as well as a safety cabinet specifically designed to store chemicals.

Sah, who led the extraordinary restoration of a 4,500-year-old mummy in the State Archaeological Museum of Hyderabad, feels the housing of artworks is crucial. The materials of boxes, cases and cabinets affect the life of the works stored inside. “There is a danger of alkaline vapours and gases. Wooden furniture releases organic vapours. Once that is settled, there is the building environment to consider. Do we keep it air-conditioned or not? Do we switch on the AC during the day and switch it off at night? These are some very pertinent decisions to make. We have a habit of putting ACs at 16 degrees. The moment it switches off, the air around gets highly humid. I know of collections that had been completely damaged because of air conditioners.”

It’s tricky and an uncharted path but Sah is determined. “This is going to be the place to study photographic conservation.”

The writer is a journalist with interest in art and culture.

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Printable version | Feb 19, 2020 12:26:45 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/art/the-museum-of-art-and-photography-in-bengaluru-is-opening-a-photography-conservation-centre/article28933001.ece

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