Inside the Collection

Reflections of Asia: Behind the Scenes with Conservation

Several people working in an unfinished gallery space during installation. On the left, one woman is walking through the gallery and on the the right several Conservators are installing a large freestanding bronze and wood ornamental incense burner.
Reflections of Asia exhibition gallery during installation. Left to right: Conservator Rebecca Ellis, Curator Min-Jung Kim with Conservators Skye Mitchell and Tim Morris. Photo: Marinco Kojdanovski, MAAS

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

Chinese folding fan open on a grey background. The blades are intricately carved ivory and the painted paper surface (leaves) portrays a busy landscape, depicting what looks like a historic scene with many small brightly coloured figures.
Fan, maker unknown, China, 19th Century, MAAS Collection, NN2018/1. Photo: Ryan Hernandez, MAAS

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.

A close detail of two small figures on the fan, of a young man in an orange robe and a woman in a blue robe in front of a blue wall, showing the finely painted woven textile and ivory faces
Fan (detail) under microscope. Fan with box, maker unknown, China, date unknown, MAAS Collection, A4118. Photo: Megan Hall, MAAS

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.

19th Century Chinese fan open during treatment of the ivory blades. The ivory blades on the left half (before treatment) appear dark and dull, while those on the right (after cleaning) are bright and glossy.
Fan during conservation treatment halfway through cleaning the ivory blades. The left half is before treatment, and the right half is after cleaning: the difference in the ivory blades can clearly be seen. Photo: Megan Hall, MAAS
Two photos showing details of the same area of the fan where there are three figures in purple robes on a busy background. In the left image, there is dust and debris on the surface, particularly obscuring the faces of the figures. On the right, this has been cleaned off the surface.
Details of 19th Century Chinese fan before (left) and after (right) brush vacuuming under the microscope. Photo: Megan Hall, MAAS

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.

Left: angled front view of ivory crab: the ivory is covered with a layer of dust and dirt and a part of the mouth is detached. Right: front view of the main body of the crab after cleaning and repairs: the ivory has regained its natural warm colour and lustre.
Carved ivory crab before conservation treatment (left) and after treatment (right). Animal figure, crab, carved ivory, maker unknown, Japan / China / Europe, 1850-1950, MAAS Collection, A4262-22. Photos: Scott Winston and Michael Myers, MAAS

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.

Left: top view of the crab with ivory covered with a layer of dust and dirt, and four sections of legs and one part of mouth detached. Right: top view of the crab after cleaning and repairs: the ivory has regained its natural warm colour and lustre
Top view of carved ivory crab before conservation treatment (left) and after treatment (right). Photos: Michael Myers, MAAS

Treatment of a late 19th century Japanese woven basket

Intricately woven bamboo basket with three tiered compartments, a lid, handle and two silk ties with tasseled ends.
Bamboo basket before treatment showing the detached silk tie and the attachment loop on the basket which is broken in several places. Basket, bamboo, maker unknown, Japan, c.1889, MAAS Collection, D481. Photo: Rebecca Ellis, MAAS

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.

Left: Close-up, broken coil of bamboo on woven hexagonal pattern. Right: repaired and splinted coil of bamboo on woven hexagonal pattern.
Detail of the broken attachment loop for the silk tassel tie before treatment (left). Progress of treatment shows the broken pieces of the attachment loop realigned and supported by a thin broad bamboo splint that has been inserted between the wrapped broken bamboo strip to reinforce and strengthen the break (right). Photos: Rebecca Ellis, MAAS

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.

Left: Broken loop realigned using a splint, on background of woven hexagonal pattern. Right: Bamboo ring on end of silk tie attached through bamboo loop with strip of Japanese tissue visible to repair break in outer bamboo wrapping, on background of woven hexagonal pattern.
Progress during the conservation treatment: A thin bamboo splint was inserted and secured at one end. A small repair using fine long fiber tissue has been used to connect a broken segment of the bamboo in the outer wrapping (left). The silk tie has been reattached to the bamboo ring which was then secured under the loop with the splint inserted behind the remaining break. Japanese tissue was used to repair and reinforce the breaks in the thin outer bamboo wrapped strip, as well as fill areas of loss (right). Photos: Rebecca Ellis, MAAS

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.

Close-up, bamboo ring on end of the silk tie, attached through the repaired bamboo loop, on a woven hexagonal pattern.
After treatment: the repaired attachment loop with the Japanese tissue fills after inpainting with acrylic paints. Photo: Rebecca Ellis: MAAS
Three-tiered woven bamboo basket, with the silk tie reinstated to the repaired attachment loop. The tassel ties have been displayed looped and draped around the single handle which extends from the sides over the top of the basket.
After treatment, Basket, bamboo, maker unknown, Japan, c.1889, MAAS Collection, D481. Photo: Michael Myers, MAAS

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.

Left: Dome shape lid with spherical droplet handle. The scene is picked out in gold which is obscured with dark areas of corrosion. The main picture is framed with a black curved line. The image is of two Japanese houses with a shrine surrounded by trees. In the background is a snow-capped mountain. Outside the curved frame are golden leaves and very dark blobs. The handle is decorated with golden butterflies. Right: The scene is clear, and the lines and dots are refined on a rich black background. The curved frame, the snow on the mountain and blobs are now silver. The blobs are now well-defined and recognisable as bunches of grapes.
Incense burner lid before conservation treatment (left) and after conservation treatment (right). Koro, incense burner and lid, Japan, nineteenth century, MAAS collection, A2971. Photo: Skye Mitchell, MAAS
Three legged koro with lid and upright handles on either side. On the belly of the incense burner is a dragon and a budda who is holding a bell in one hand and a string of beads in his other
Koro, incense burner and lid, Japan, nineteenth century, MAAS collection, A2971. Photo: Belinda Christie, MAAS

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.

Left: Close up of a golden peony flower with a thick reddish-brown coating covering the recesses and a film over the remaining raised areas resulting in the dull appearance Right: Close up of the shiny golden peony flower.
Detail from one of the vases before conservation treatment (left) and after conservation treatment (right). Vase, (one of a pair), maker unknown, Japan, date unknown, MAAS collection, A2980-1. Photo: Skye Mitchell, MAAS
Damp cotton wool covering the peony flower.
Softening the coating with cotton wool moistened with solvent. Photo: Skye Mitchell, MAAS
Stained, damp cotton wool half pulled back revealing the partially softened coating within the peony flower recesses.
Checking the progress of the solvent. Photo: Skye Mitchell, MAAS
Blue gloved hand holding a cotton bud with the coating staining the bud as it is removed.
Removing the softened coating with cotton buds and solvent. Photo: Skye Mitchell, MAAS
Bronze vase with a single peacock in the centre with foliage and pink tinged blossoms overhead and the golden peony underneath.
Vase, (one of a pair), maker unknown, Japan, date unknown, MAAS collection, A2980-1. Photo: Belinda Christie, MAAS

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

3 responses to “Reflections of Asia: Behind the Scenes with Conservation

  • Thank you for sharing the details of your work on preparing these beautiful objects for display. Your description and the photographs show clearly the intricacy of your work and the impressive results. I was lucky enough to see some of this work in progress and have since visited the exhibition. I’ll have to return for another view, especially of the objects you have described.

  • Beautiful,careful and considered work. Excellent photos. The intricacies of the construction shown under the microscope was fascinating. Thanks for letting us see how talented and professional you all are.

  • Thank you so much for your great research. I found a paper fan by the same maker, in its original box. It was was acquired by my grand-mother and i must have looked at it for countless hours before finding your article. Thank you so much for placing light on such incredible work of art.

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