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Tech to hold back time: the ever-evolving world of heritage conservation

Omkar Kadu, Conservator- CSMVS, cleaning accretions from the surface of gilded bronze sculpture using Laser ablation.

Omkar Kadu, Conservator- CSMVS, cleaning accretions from the surface of gilded bronze sculpture using Laser ablation.  

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If you ever wondered what happens to artefacts before they head to the showcase, check out a melding of humankind and machines to conserve the past

Who says you can’t look cool while giving a piece of history a longer lease of life? Museum and gallery visitors gaze at artefacts and rarely see work that goes on backstage. It’s a world where people and science come together to immortalise tangible heritage. Such institutes have deployed a range of air purifiers, dehumidifiers, light intensity monitors, data-loggers and other high-tech equipment, stabilising the environment and protecting artefacts through three types of heritage conservation: restorative, curative and preventative, depending on the state of the artefacts on arrival and the environment of the museums.

A reclining Buddha exhibit is seen outside the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya museum in Mumbai, India, November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas

A reclining Buddha exhibit is seen outside the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya museum in Mumbai, India, November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas   | Photo Credit: FRANCIS MASCARENHAS

Italy-based Light For Art is restoring the Patan Royal Palace in Lalitpur in Nepal, a project led by the Institute for Conservation of Vienna and the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust. First came analysis of the petrographic characteristics of the palace’s red stone of the north and south portals and the black layer of bitumen that covered them (laid intentionally decades ago for conservation purposes). After preliminary tests were carried out at Italian laser research company El.En, on samples taken from the Palace, the restorers proceeded with laser cleaning using the compact and portable EOS 1000 LQS which delivers laser through the optical fibre for precision, and Thunder Art, which uses infrared wavelengths to remove biological encrustations. Earlier, conservationists tried solvents, scalpels and sandblasting to clear the portals, to no avail. But after the laser ablation cleaned up, the results were stunning.

Closer home, the 30-strong team at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS, earlier known as Prince of Wales Museum) Conservation Centre champion this movement. Conservator Nikhil Ramesh says, “Our laser ablation machine is one of two laser machines in artefact conservation in the country. It’s effectively used on terracotta, ceramics and some types of metals. It’s important to also be aware of imitations, and to be safe while upholding the integrity of the artefact is a priority. There’s always an exchange between the industry creating this machinery and the conservators using them. At CSMVS, we have the funding and we don’t spare any expense when it comes to the right equipment. Suppliers have come up in India in the past few years, which really helps alleviate shipping time concerns.”

Nikhil Ramesh, Conservator-CSMVS, examines the elemental composition of paint layers on a Nepalese Paubhā using X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF)

Nikhil Ramesh, Conservator-CSMVS, examines the elemental composition of paint layers on a Nepalese Paubhā using X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF)  

Nikhil states, stays up-to-date with global conservation projects, even ones before his time at CSMVS. He commends the restoration of Antoine Dubost’s 1804 painting Sword of Damocles. “Every object is an exciting challenge because no two are the same. A conservation project is truly successful when one can’t tell a treatment has taken place. Your technology is only as good as you are, because you are the one controlling these machines.”

Old-school still wins

In the expanse of Hyderabad’s Salar Jung Museum’s Conservation Department, the whir of a green mobile filtering extractor fills the space. It hums adjacent to the workstation of Mukund Lal, a second-generation conservator at the institute, helping him restore a set of yellowed paper writings by the 1631 Persian poet Muhammad Talib Amuli, written in clear Nastaliq. He is absorbed in the work, each sheet covered in holes, one breath away from tearing to pieces. Donning an apron, latex gloves and a mask, the 70-plus-year-old’s hands are as steady as a surgeon’s as he lightly brushes the frail sheets with methanol to remove bacteria and fungus. The filtering extractor siphons off the methanol fumes and fine dust with a gas spring balanced extraction arm.

Mukund Lal doing a Japanese tissue method of restoration on manuscripts by Muhammad Talib Amuli and using a mobile fume extractor

Mukund Lal doing a Japanese tissue method of restoration on manuscripts by Muhammad Talib Amuli and using a mobile fume extractor   | Photo Credit: Divya Kala Bhavani

Mukund works diligently — not a man to be rushed — and places the delicate pages between two sheets of Japanese tissue. He applies a thin layer of cellulose acetate (an organic substance commonly used in early photography) over the sheets in vertical strokes, securing the renewed layers. Some methods stand the test of time, as conservator Kalpana Awasthi points out while overseeing the work, adding, “It’s easy to assume this career line is monotonous, but we are in-the-know with the latest technologies in this space as well.”

Tools for scientific analysis
  • X-ray fluorescence
  • Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy
  • Stereo and USB digital microscopes
  • Equipment for chemical analysis
  • UV and infrared imaging
  • Photogrammetric 3D modelling
  • Grinding and polishing machine
  • Reflective transformation imaging

Tools for conservation
  • Laser for art conservation
  • Multifunctional table
  • Fume extractor
  • Light tables
  • Textile washing and textile conservation tables
  • Electric easels for large paintings
  • Graphic Pen tablet for documentation
  • Chemical cabinet with fume extraction

She adds that the use of Japanese tissue is no secret — it’s an age-old method of safeguarding even the most fragile of paper heritage. Using tough cellulose fibres is a method for which even the most esteemed museum can vouch. Mukund lays the coated Diwan of Amuli between foam sheets to remove excess moisture. Humidity is a big-time nemesis of the conservation community. The mobile filtering extractor stays switched on. Kalpana assures me that the fumes released by the machine from Italian manufacturer CTS are non-toxic, which was a key factor when the museum sourced the device.

Problematic factors

“With the rising pollution levels in our cities, we have to keep evolving our methods to keep up with the potential of our artefacts deteriorating,” Kalpana says, as the River Musi flows outside with a hint of sulphuric odour. “Gases given off by exhaust systems are acidic and speed up the breakdown of organic matter like paper.” Pollution also affects more than paper artefacts; it affects the silver and copper artefacts on display.

As with the Japanese tissue technique, art conservation draws its lessons from organic chemistry and biology. How can a conservator fight Mother Nature? Answer: use her tools against her. A December 2018 study Characterisation of biodegradation in a 17th-century easel painting and potential for a biological approach by the Italian conservation scientist Elisabetta Caselli states bacteria and fungi can consume ingredients used to make paints. Italian scientists analysed the microbial populations on a neglected painting, Carlo Bononi’s Incoronazione della Vergine of 1620. They discovered that some bacteria can help preserve the painting by outcompeting microbes devouring said paints. A cellular game of cat-and-mouse for the art world.

The space is forever evolving — it’s what Kalpana and Nikhil both enjoy the most about art conservation. So next time you’re ambling around a museum, think about the countless old-world practices and new-age tech meeting to keep history alive.

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Printable version | Nov 22, 2019 12:46:21 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/technology/tech-to-hold-back-time-the-world-of-art-conservation/article25763925.ece

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