Preserving India’s Heritage at CSMVS, Mumbai

Contributed by: Susmita Biswas
Have you ever had to retrieve and preserve family photo albums at your grandmother’s home? It was an annual ritual at my grandmother’s home to replace the butter papers in between pages and air out the photos, so they don’t get moist and catch mould. We would even use a little dusting powder on the butter paper, just to make sure the paper does not get stuck to the photographs.
It was a fun activity because we grandchildren loved looking at photos of our grandparents as kids, frolicking in the mud, making faces, graduating, and getting married. We wanted to see if these authoritative figures of today were as goofy as us. To find a connection between their lives and ours.
It was a household art project. A primitive effort at conserving the family’s heritage and history.
Now, imagine conserving the country’s heritage and history. Preserving thousand year old stone sculptures, or centuries old paintings on paper. What must that be like? How do conservators safeguard artwork?
It is not something I had thought of until now; until I visited the Conserving the Collection exhibition at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai. The exhibition answered many of my questions and opened my mind to wondering about conservation processes when I look at artwork.
Half of a 1,500 year old stucco Buddha head was cleaned with pulses of laser light.
Half of a 1,500 year old stucco Buddha head was cleaned with pulses of laser light.
Question: How do you clean a thousand year old stone statue?
Answer: With pure light! A laser cleanser is what the conservation specialists used to clean a 1,500 year old stucco Buddha head from the Gandhara region.
Question: Do you keep the corrosion on the metal or remove it when you conserve a ancient idol?
Answer: It totally depends. Patina is not always a bad thing. Conservators may sometimes decide to retain the patina (surface deposits like a layer of oxidation or the brownish or glossy tone of ivory or marble) if it enhances the look of the object or is actually protecting the object (like in the case of a layer of oxidation on copper) from further deterioration.
The green deposits on this copper-alloy Narasimha idol refect a passage of time and have therefore been retained since they do not pose any risk to the object itself.
The green deposits on this copper-alloy Narasimha idol refect a passage of time and have therefore been retained since they do not pose any risk to the object itself.
Question: How do you preserve a piece of art made on paper hundreds of years ago?
Answer: Ultra-violet imaging and Infra-red imaging to view different layers or previous sketches that are not visible to the naked eye. And wait for it, a nebuliser! Only, this time it is used on a painting and the painting does not have asthma. Conservators use a nebuliser to create a cold fog to rescue a painting whose paint is flaking and falling away at the mildest touch. A mist of consolidant settles on the painting and fixes the surface of the powdered paint.
Conservators used IR imaging and found other sketches beneath this layer of painting of Shiva and Parvati on Nandi. This a 250 year old painting from Jammu and Kashmir.
Conservators used IR imaging and found other sketches beneath this layer of painting of Shiva and Parvati on Nandi. This is a 250 year old painting from Jammu and Kashmir.
Question: How do you make sure stone sculptures don’t get worn out during cleaning?
Answer: Simple, analyse the composition of the stone before blasting the stone sculpture with a jet of water or scrubbing it rigourously. Conservators take extra care to ensure that parts of the stone that may turn to clay over time are not lost in the process of ill-informed cleaning. If the clay is washed away the stone will have pores and holes and will slowly fall apart.
Gajalakshmi Stone sculpture
This stone Gajalakshmi sculpture was analysed before it was cleaned and restored
Question: Does contemporary art need conservation?
Answer: Yes, a thousand times yes! Contemporary artists experiment with modern materials. These new materials may behave in unexpected ways and end up changing the look of the artwork. Conservators weigh all the options available to them and take whatever actions required to preserve the artistic integrity of the artwork.
There is so much to learn about the work of conservators and what they do to preserve our collective art heritage for us to enjoy.
 Conserving the Collection Exhibition closed on November 1, 2016.  Curated by Anupam Sah, and the CSMVS Art Conservation Center,  it is supported by ConservArt Citi-CSMVS  Art Conservation Project.
A book on the exhibition, titled “Conserving the Collection : the caring path for 500 years of art” is available at a subsidised fee of Rs.500/- at the Museum shop. You can also access a PDF version online.

A 240-page hard bound book featuring 55 iconic and rare objects, many of them printed for the first time ever, spanning 5000 years of history from the Indus Valley Civilization to contemporary times is a steal at INR 500/-  Each object is accompanied with its historical notes followed by select aspects of art conservation narrated through the medium of text and imagery. 

Disclaimer: This is not a paid review. 
About the Author:
Susmita Biswas is a freelance journalist with a keen interest in learning new things. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram, where she posts some amazing pictures. You can also follow her Blog here: http://susmitabiswas.info/blog/