At DakshinaChitra’s conservation lab, you can restore your old photographs

L Amirthanathan at the conservation lab with his team   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

When L Amirthanathan is at the conservation lab with his team, nothing can distract him.

Working on a 100-year-old reproduction of Ravi Varma’s Goddess Saraswathi, he dips Japanese tissue paper (used by paper conservators) in methyl cellulose and retouches the image carefully. This process removes wrinkles. The image is further given back support with a melinex sheet.

“Everyone, every household has objects that need to be restored from damage, and usually it is an old photograph, a silk sari or antique furniture,” says Amirthanathan, who is the in-house conservator at DakshinaChitra heritage museum. And he believes that awareness is essential to safeguard objects from the past.

Owner’s pride
  • Based on the products, materials and chemicals to be used for restoration, and the time it may take, an estimate is given to the customers. Once the customer agrees, the work is taken up.
  • Since it started extending the service to the public, the lab has so far restored an ivory jewel box which was broken into six pieces, a bronze vethalapetti (betel leaves box), about 15 terracotta golu dolls, one oil painting and a couple of termite-attacked, completely-destroyed black-and-white photographs.

According to Sharath Nambiar, director, DakshinaChitra, the country needs more conservators, as well as more institutions that provide professional training in conservation.

“In our country, we failed to pay attention to conservation, even though we have a fairly good number of museums,” says Sharath. At DakshinaChitra, the Madras Craft Foundation conducted a two-year-long conservation programme for four trainees and one of the staff members of the museum, with funding from the Tata Trust.

“Tody Cezar from Portugal, Petra Czerwinske from Germany, Anupam Sah, Deepshikha Kalsi, V Jeyaraj and S Girikumar from various museums in India had conducted training for these five students,” Sharath says. Apart from this, students were also sent to Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Museum in Mumbai and others across the country for training.

At the lab, documentation is important. Any object that reaches them, is assessed by the conservator, and after careful study, a strategy is planned and details are documented.

The process

Conservators need to have a background in painting and history of art. It helps if they gain sufficient expertise in chemistry as well. Trained professionals clean, repair and restore a damaged artwork and preserve it. They could be dealing with anything from paintings to sculptures or even manuscripts.

The Bible before restoration

The Bible before restoration   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

“We mainly focus on restoring the artwork’s original look and make sure it looks less worn out,” Amirthanathan says. A keen eye for observation, a steady hand, extreme patience, combined with an interest in history and heritage, are prerequisites for those interested in building a career in this field. “Once we learn the basics of paper, textile, wood and art restoration using various scientific techniques, we can come up with innovative ideas and creative solutions on our own over a period of time based on our experience,” says Amirthanathan, adding that he restored an almost 150-year-old Bible, single-handedly.

The Bible after restoration

The Bible after restoration   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Creative pursuit

When the leather-bound Bible reached the museum from a private collector, the outer leather cover with metal beading, replete with a brass lock, was completely damaged. There was red foxing on the vintage paper, and the pages had become brittle.

After assessment, Amirthanathan managed to restore the Bible to its original glory in a few weeks.

Similarly, he has restored a variety of diverse objects: a damaged terracotta drishti doll, numerous vintage photographs and paintings and a mosaic of Jesus’ crucifixion. They also work with antiques like papier-mache masks and glass lamps.

“If conservators combine their creativity with their knowledge and expertise, and if they enjoy the work they do, it can be the most satisfying career,” he says.

Today, there is better awareness among the public, says Amirthanathan. Old black-and-white photos are damaged mainly because they are hung directly on the wall. Termites, fungi and moisture in the wall damage the frame and cardboard.

DakshinaChitra has recently opened up their conservation and restoration services to the public as well. For details, call 9841020149.

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Printable version | Sep 25, 2021 3:09:02 PM |

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