Gatekeepers of history

Art conservators not only repair damaged artwork but must also work hard to prevent future harm

Patcharaporn Niamsoi, conservator, left and Chiraporn Aranyanark, an art conservation specialist at the SAC Conservation Lab. (Photos: Varuth Hirunyatheb)

Art conservators not only repair damaged artwork but must also work hard to prevent future harm Conservator Patcharaporn Niamsoi examines the condition of a painting that was damaged due to shrapnel from a chemical plant explosion in Beirut, Lebanon. The painting had been sent to the SAC Conservation Lab at SAC Gallery for treatment.

"When a conservator receives a piece for treatment, she/he must examine it in detail and assess the condition. The canvas of the painting from Beirut was torn and glass fragments and shrapnel were stuck in the canvas. I worked with another conservator to clean the dust and layers of colours from back to front and we bound the torn spaces of the canvas by using thread and appropriate adhesive. However, we repaired only major damage. We discussed this with the owner who agreed to leave some scratches on the painting since it was part of an important event in history," explained Patcharaporn.

The damaged painting from Beirut is one of many art objects that have undergone conservation treatment at SAC Conservation Lab. Most clients of SAC are collectors who want to clean their old and valuable artworks but some col lectors want help in repairing their damaged pieces. Chiraporn Aranyanark, an expert in conservation of cultural materials who has worked in this field for over 47 years, explained conservation measures can be divided into two categories — preventive conservation and conservation treatment. "Preventive conservation emphasises using measures to prevent any deterioration. If there is deterioration, a conservator must see to it that deterioration does not propagate. The conservator also has to take into account the artwork's environment, including how it is stored and displayed. They should have contingency plans for disasters and other emergencies so they can act to save the artwork. For conservation treatment, a conservator must try to maintain the original condition of the piece as much as possible. We do not make art pieces look new and we must preserve the original craftsmanship. Instead, we add colour or material only into spots that need fixing," said Chiraporn.

Conservators aim to maintain the value of the artwork.

"At SAC Conservation Lab, we do not repair art objects for beauty. The purpose of conservation is to reduce the deterioration and aging processes of the objects, so a conservator must consult with a specialist like Chiraporn who has experience working with many types of materials. If we are not sure that treatment is appropriate for an art objects, we will not apply it. It is important to maintain the value of the artwork both in terms of quality and sentimental value," Patcharaporn said.

Patcharaporn earned a master's degree in Fine Art Conservation from Silpakorn University and began to work as a conservator last year. Chiraporn has worked as a conservation scientist for the Fine Arts Department for more than four decades. She currently is a lecturer for the graduate school (Fine Art Conservation) at Silpakorn University. As a conservation specialist, Chiraporn has had opportunities to apply conservation treatment for significant events.

"I am proud to have been part of the cleaning and repairing of the royal funeral chariots, which were used for the funeral of Queen Rambai Barni in 1985. The chariots were kept in a royal garage close to a cafeteria for decades. They were dusty and their surfaces had thick oil stains from cooking oil. Other conservators and I had to clean them until they were sparkling clean. I also performed conservation treatment to the fabrics that decorated boats in the Royal Barge Procession. There had been a flood in the National Museum of the Royal Barges where the fabrics were stored and that had caused fungus to grow on the fabrics," said Chiraporn.

With many years of experiences, Chiraporn found there have been many changes in the conservation concept and technology.

"In the past, there was no preventive conservation. Everything was about conservation treatment. Conservators worked on repairing only. Later, undergraduate degrees in art conservation were offered in many countries such as the US, China, Japan, India, Australia and many countries in Europe. There was more up-to-date research that showed how some chemicals used to repair artwork can actually cause negative effects after treatments. Currently, preventive conservation is a priority in every country. If we have 100 art pieces, we must prevent all 100 pieces from deteriorating. And if artwork needs to be repaired, it must be repaired by a well-trained conservatory," said Chiraporn.

"Packaging is the trendiest idea of preventive conservation since packaging provides environment control for each art piece. Instead of having air conditioning or a dehumidifier, which costs money, the artwork should be properly packaged. For example, metal is sensitive to humidity. Metal artwork should be packed in plastic packaging with silica gel inside. Arts on paper artwork needs a medium humid environment so we can add a lot of paper as a buffer in order to stabilise the humidity. Besides preventing dampness, packaging protects the artwork from dust, insects, fungus and light," Chiraporn added.

Even though conservation is important, in Thailand, the industry lacks conservators and a general understanding of the field.

There are less than 20 conservators in Thailand.

"There are less than 20 well-trained conservators in Thailand and generally people misunderstand that repair is conservation. There are many problems regarding the conservation of cultural heritage because people focus on only repairs. The repair process for cultural heritage does not fit its annual budget which comes with limited time. For example, historic buildings are painted in September when there is heavy rainfall, so the paint cannot dry perfectly. There is no maintenance budget even though this is the best conservation method. Hence, instead of having maintenance for minor damage, historic buildings are repaired only when items have major damages, which make the items lose a lot of their originality," said Chiraporn.

To raise public awareness and provide knowledge about preventive conservation, conservators have organised workshops at SAC Gallery. A recent workshop in March was about how to properly store paper artwork and photos.

"We will organise workshops with suggested topics from our Facebook page. Our workshop focuses on activities that participants can perform independently. The process must be safe and practical. If we can educate people about conservation, their collections will be better protected with less damage. The cost of the preventive process is less than the cost of conservation treatment," Patcharaporn said

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