Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Diary of an NUS Museum Intern | Conservation Dilemmas: Is this Original?

Note: Diary of an NUS Museum Intern is a series of blog posts written by our interns about their experiences during the course of their internships. Working alongside their mentors, our interns have waded through tons of historical research, assisted in curatorial work, pitched in during exhibition installations and organised outreach events! If you would like to become our next intern, visit our internship page for more information!  

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Lim Jia Yi is a University Scholars Programme scholar and will be a 2nd year History student at NUS FASS. In May 2015, she joined us as an Education Outreach intern, assisting in the research, compilation and consolidation of our educational resources for current exhibitions and collections. As part of the internship, she visited the Heritage Conservation Centre, a visit that was concurrently part of our ongoing docent enrichment programme. Earlier in the internship, the interns also participated in a conservation workshop by The Conservation Studio.


Robert Smithson noted in his 1970 film ‘Spiral Jetty’: “The earth’s history seems at times like a story recorded in a book, each page of which is torn into small pieces. Many of the pages and some of the pieces of each page are missing”. The study of history is the piecing together of these fragments and conservation work the rearrangement and maintenance of the torn pieces, but this work is fraught with tensions and questions.

Do we restore artefacts and objects to their original state, or do we choose to recognise the effects history has had on it? By whose standards are we identifying this original state? There are cases when damage is part of the artefact’s history or artistic message: taking this to the extreme, a broken door damaged during the Battle of Singapore or a misshapen metal bowl melted during the firebombing of Tokyo carries significant historical importance that would be glossed over if we returned these objects to how they would have looked like before the war. S. Rajaratnam’s reading desk (which was being restored when we visited the Centre) is significant today because of his importance in Singapore’s history, but in its original time the desk was simply an ordinary low table for books, perhaps even a dime a dozen among similar desks in other Singaporean homes.


An object gathers meaning in layers, so which layer of history should we choose to restore? Which version of the object do we have access to now, before and after conservation takes place? Each layer is equally important in its own right, but for the purposes of exhibitions and narrative flow, we often have to select one or a few layers to be highlighted. The tiny pieces of earthenware you see arranged neatly on a backlit museum shelf could have once been parts of a large earthenware water pot, accidentally broken by a clumsy coolie and quickly swept overboard before the owner noticed, yet today this part of its history is forgotten in its new role as an educational object, a sherd telling us about the types of pottery found in historical Singapore and perhaps about the kind of people that lived here. In selecting the stories to be highlighted, we are also adding layers to the object’s complex role in history, layers that may not be completely different but are not wholly identical either.


To a certain extent, the Heritage Conservation Centre as a physical location is a testament to this. It is situated on land that used to be the site of a customs office, and echoing that past, the Centre is protected with the same stringent security systems that might have been in place back then. This high security applies to people (with keys and access cards required to gain entry into storage rooms and conservation studios, and special permission required to even access the building), pests (all new objects are quarantined, and contaminated objects are either fumigated with nitrogen or frozen at -30C until the insects are killed), and even non-living things like air (special air filtration systems are installed on all the Centre windows, winnowing out pollutants from Jurong’s industrial air) and sunlight (the storerooms are mostly windowless, and fragile textiles in the garment storeroom are stored in dark airtight archival cupboards).

How do you decide what is history and what isn’t? Sylvia, one of the object conservators at the Centre, was showing us a rattan baby cot being restored for an upcoming exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore. The cot’s mattress was originally covered in a dolphin print fabric, which can be traced back to the 1970s, the time period this baby cot was from. However, Sylvia noted that this dating can be controversial because fabric prints from that time are generally of geometric patterns, and the dolphin print is still popular in Singapore today (albeit usually on fabrics different from the pure cotton of this mattress cover). Working with this in mind, she covered the mattress in a white cotton cover for the exhibition, which had the added benefit of protecting the original fabric from air pollutants and fading due to light exposure, but raises the question: are we trying to preserve the objects as they are, or as we think they should be?

This is perhaps why the word of the day during the Centre visit, as was during the conservation workshop the interns had a few weeks before, was “Reversibility”. Bearing this in mind and noting the fragility of some of the objects we had the privilege to look at, you can probably see why the visit was both interesting and slightly terrifying for a clumsy person like me. This notion of reversibility ties in with the natural purpose of conservation (to prevent further deterioration and preserve the object in the best condition possible for the longest period of time), because when the future brings improved technologies and conservation methods, conservation actions taken today can be easily removed. Furniture makers of the past tended to construct their pieces using whatever adhesive available to them, which often turned out to be natural adhesives that may or may not be fully suitable for the furniture material or design. However, when conservators repair these objects, they place emphasis not only on what adhesive is compatible with the original material but also what will be easily removable for later conservation work.

There is also the question of display. Displaying an object increases the possibility of damage (a large percentage of damages occur during transportation, and may accelerate deterioration in exposing fragile artefacts to pollutants and UV rays, but locking them away forever in a dark chamber with carefully controlled atmospheres honestly just renders it useless as an object of history.

Is there ever a golden equilibrium to be achieved between preservation, repair and display? I doubt it. If I have learnt anything from the NUS Museum’s conservation workshop and the Heritage Conservation Centre visit, however, I don’t think finding this equilibrium is as important as what we can learn from the constant negotiations and rebalancing of priorities.


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