The art and craft of preserving art

Ann Shaftel, An expert talks about what it takes and means to preserve the sacred art
Ann Shaftel
Lam Ngedup Dorji is worried. The thangkas in his lhakhang appear to be growing mould following the monsoon season. Sonam Dema inherited a beautiful silk kira from her mother, and she wants to preserve it for her grandchildren. She has been washing it with a new detergent advertised on TV, and sees that it is fading and shredding. Sonam Dema’s beautiful silk kira was woven in another century by her grandmother from silk dyed with natural lac from Mongar. The bleaches, perfumes, optical brighteners, and strong chemical detergents in the newest laundry product are all too harsh for natural silk and natural dye. The framed family photos of her grandparents are also fading. What is going on? Could it be the new compact fluorescent tubes that she and her husband are using in their home? It has been shown that some modern “improvements” do not mix well with heritage treasures from earlier centuries: for example, strong chemical cleaners and light bulbs may save energy but contain high levels of damaging ultraviolet radiation. For centuries, old treasures in monasteries and private homes have been cared for by resident nuns and monks. The longevity of these precious treasures is determined every day as the caretakers handle, clean, and display these treasures on Buddhist shrines. Every Bhutanese home has an altar with thangkas and statues. Some shops and businesses also have an area with a thangka and offerings. Kiras, ghos (Bhutanese dress for men) and other everyday sacred family treasures that are woven into the fabric of daily life in Bhutan hold profound importance for the continuity of traditional Bhutanese culture. Yet, the task of caring for them can baffle most.

So there is robust logic in training nuns, monks and private individuals in the care of these objects in their homes, nunneries and monasteries to enable them to gain basic preservation know-how. Though it is necessary to have some scientific understanding of materials and their behaviour, it can be combined with the dedication of caretakers and traditional respect and methods to help preserve the treasures of Bhutan. Preservation: What it entails For art conservators, as opposed to restorers, work is based on scientific principles, and it is carried out with respect, and minimal intervention to the sacred art. Prevention of damage is of utmost importance. Any nation’s heritage can be preserved with the help of scientific understanding of materials and their behaviour and internationally accepted preservation and conservation strategies, combined with traditional principles of respect for sacred objects and dedication. Because art conservation consists of both “preservation” and “restoration”, a healthy balance must be maintained. Years ago, restoration was seen as the pinnacle, and to some today, it still is. The “before” and “after” pictures of a restorer’s work seemed most impressive. However, in professional art conservation, stabilisation of the basic structure is fundamental, and aesthetic integration would ideally follow that. And today, preservation, the prevention of damage occurring in the first place, is the goal. Prevention of damage makes sense economically; it is, in current language, sustainable. You might spend one year and a lot of ngultrums paying for the surface restoration of one culturally significant treasure. More sustainable, in contrast, would be to teach caretakers Tashi Delek May-June 2013

HERITAGE Art Preservation Venerable Thrangu Rinpoche said, “Sacred art is not just for beauty. It is for teaching and developing inner wisdom and compassion. Since it is not meant just for decoration, such art should be kept in a clean and appropriate place.” Does sacred art lose its blessings when removed from a traditional setting? Buddhist teachers and scholars believe that thangkas carry blessings “until the four elements – fire, wind, water and earth – destroy the image”. The questions of over-restoration and the subsequent lessening of blessings have also bothered teachers and communities alike, since the image is destroyed in its original form. Recently, thangkas are being over-restored when the image is sprayed with water to “clean it” in a method originating in HERITAGE Art Preservation prevention of damage. It is more practical to invest in, for example, new electrical wiring or the use of dehumidifiers, to prevent damage to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of culturally significant treasures. Documentation and digitisation are important hallmarks of today’s science-based preservation approach, in addition to the prevention of damage. In Bhutan, “how-to’s” involved in caring for sacred art range from the practical and scientific to the subtle and elusive. Informed, skillful, respectful care and handling are fundamental to maintenance and preservation of artifacts. Terms like “culturally significant” are used to refer to intangible values in a treasure that go beyond the aesthetic or utilitarian, and make the artifact worthy of respect. China and Japan for use on paper, or silk-on-paper Chinese or Japanese scroll paintings. This method can damage older thangkas that were traditionally painted with yak hide glue and earth colours. The water used to “clean” may damage the original fine line and detail of a master painter and lead to painting over the original to simulate a newer and undamaged painting. Sometimes, the use of poster paint from the market may be chemically unstable or not true to the original earth colour palette. This is a problem in the world of preservation.

Fighting natural elements and human error Recently, when fire destroyed Wangduephodrang Dzong, texts, textiles, thangkas, statues, wall paintings and historical artifacts were lost. It was fortunate that many of the major treasures had already been relocated to the newly constructed lhakhang. It is crucial to install smoke detectors and upgrade old electrical wiring to help prevent similar tragedies in other locations. Fire and floods are catastrophic events that can cause immense loss. However, national treasures are also affected by events in day-to-day life. Cleaning, mildew and mould, insects and rats – these are concerns for many people. Cleaning, for example, is an ordinary activity that can adversely affect sacred art. One common mistake that private individuals and communities can make is using strong chemicals to clean traditionally crafted gilt bronze statues. Harsh cleaning sprays and soaps can etch away at the traditional mercury gilding of statues. Traditionally, caretakers were careful not to touch the face or other gilded surfaces of statues, having learned that the natural oils on their fingers would leave fingerprints etched into the surface of the gold. It is best to avoid commercial products since they are too strong for use on heritage treasures that were made with traditional techniques. Traditional caretakers also mentioned that statues often were given brocade robes both for respect, and to keep the surface of the gold clean and unmarked. If it is necessary to dust, a soft, clean brush can be used. It is best to avoid commercial “dusting pads” that have chemicals embedded in the fibers. With the yearly monsoon, mould and mildew can cause permanent damage. In one museum, the curator had wrapped some thangkas in plastic. Although this was intended to save the thangkas from mould, there were dark and fuzzy patches of mould and mildew growing happily on the thangka and on the inside of the plastic. These damage-causing microorganisms can be dormant, and will return whenever the environmental conditions are favourable. Therefore, air movement and climate control (for example the use of dehumidifiers) is recommended. Mould spores can be quite unhealthy for humans. Even if the mould is inactive, and HERITAGE Art Preservation most of it removed by airflow or vacuum, if a person has become sensitive to mould, they can still have a serious allergic reaction to the dormant mould spores.

Insects and rodents constantly cause damage to lineage treasures in Bhutan. Although strong poisons may kill and temporarily deter such pests, strong poisons also can harm you, your children and your elders. Mothballs and other chemicals are not recommended. Not only are they toxic to you, but they can actually damage textiles, paintings and other treasures. Other traditional deterrents such as cedar wood are not particularly effective or recommended. These days, museums use IPM, or Integrated Pest Management. Gently vacuuming and cleaning away soil is recommended as soil can damage textiles in storage, such as kiras, and soil provides nutrition for both insects and mould. While you are taking inventory of your treasures, a good thing to do is note any insect or rodent damage. See if you can discover where the insects and mice or rats are entering your structure. Silverfish, for example, can enter with new construction materials and damp areas. Although killing insects and other pests can be considered controversial in a Buddhist society, in museums, for example, pest activity is often monitored with the use of sticky traps. You can see what insects you have and where they are entering. It would be better to discourage them than to be required to kill them with toxic poisons. Be prepared: Have a plan and an inventory Fire, monsoons, floods and water from leaking pipes and roofs have been causes of damage and will always pose real threats to our treasures and prized possessions. In the event of disasters, quick response time can make the difference between total loss and a successful recovery. These are not only concerns for Bhutan but also the rest of the world with increase in more natural disasters like storms and earthquakes around the world. It is also important for such events to create an emergency plan: museums call this a disaster preparedness plan or disaster recovery plan. A plan can be created not only for local dzongs and lhakhangs, but also for private homes and businesses. Form a small team, or a responsible person or people, who will know their roles when an emergency arises. A written plan is excellent and it could include a list of phone numbers of the emergency team members, local government officials, fire and police, restoration experts, and the insurance company. There are quick reference tools now available online on how to take care of fire or water damaged treasures made of different materials (ceramics, paintings, textiles, books, etc.). The Emergency Response Salvage Wheel is one such reference tool that summarises how to care for a particular treasure after it is damaged in a particular disaster. This page-sized paper wheel explains everything you need to know in the crucial 48 hours following a disaster and it can also be downloaded. It is ideal to have a list of what is actually at home, or office, with measurements and with current insurance values. The least that can be done is use a digital camera or a phone camera to document treasures and make some notes about those treasures. It also helps to store copies of photos, digital images, and notes about treasures in two locations other than at work or home. Duplicates of the documentation in a neighbour’s home, or the office, may save vital information. It is now recommended to include copies of historical or otherwise important local lhakhang and community papers, computer back-ups, blueprints and financial records.

Bhutan, similar to many traditional societies, has relied on traditional methods of preservation of sacred art. These traditions were, and still are, passed down from one caretaker to another. The tradition of monastic caretakers, although venerable, varies in the efficacy of preservation from monastery to monastery. In some monasteries, for example, caretaker positions have duration of three months, and then a new caretaker comes in with little transfer of knowledge. In another monastery or nunnery, the caretaker’s position may be a lifelong assignment and the caretaker becomes a source of information about each thangka and statue. However, just as art conservators are constantly and vigilantly updating our knowledge about scientific research on methods and materials, even the most venerable monastic caretaker could take advantage of easily available and practical information on safer storage and display. Information about changing lights, for example – why LED HERITAGE Art Preservation lights might be safer for thangkas than fluorescent tube lights, and information about practical climate control could extend the life of the monastery’s treasures. Often when I work closely with monks in monasteries, it is because the lam of the monastery has invited me to live in the monastery and work with the caretakers. Similarly, it is usually a family member who contacts me through my website to seek advice on prolonging the life and safety of their family’s lineage treasures. These days, many monks and nuns use mobile phones and can search the web for information as well as use Facebook, email and texting. It would be relatively easy for monastic caretakers to read about what some museums and even what other monasteries are doing. Compare this access to information with the relative isolation of previous centuries. In our digital age, mobile phones and computers are so useful for documenting the condition of, and the very existence of, our col- lections of sacred art. Although the Department of Culture is actively documenting treasures of Bhutan within government supervision, there are significant collections under private ownership. Therefore, it becomes relevant that owners and caretakers themselves utilise user-friendly collections documentation software to document their own collections privately and safeguard them for their descendants. A family, shop, business or private school could do well to also have a complete written and photographic record of their own treasures. An inventory of your treasures, even if it is only images of your treasures captured using your mobile phone and saved online in your email account, can be very helpful. Some mobiles can take simple videos, and video documentation of your treasures is better than no inventory at all. During documentation, take a fresh look to inspect if pests like silverfish are eating your kira in storage. Check for mould and mildew during and after monsoon season.

Theft is a very good reason to document your treasures and maintain an inventory. Art theft is a growing concern in Bhutan and in all areas of the Himalayan region. The Royal Bhutan Police and Interpol are working together to curb this problem. Thieves target lhakhangs, small museums and archaeological sites to profit from the underground and illicit trade. Usually the need for security of treasures can be balanced with their traditional usage and cultural value. It is very important to initiate documentation against theft, and this documentation can be used to assist in recovery after a theft occurs. An inventory with pictures can be used to prove ownership during recovery. To prevent both theft and vandalism, increased vigilance is necessary. Some lhakhangs have installed inexpensive closed circuit TV cameras to monitor and record visitors, while others still feel it is intrusive. Instead they have chosen to increase the visible presence of monks, nuns or community members to greet and guide visitors.

Honouring the creators of sacred art Interviewing and documenting methods from thangka painters, sculptors and weavers would be crucial for posterity as they possess skills, knowledge and wisdom that can keep the craft alive. There are a few experts, like Kencho Dekar, who know the skillful art of dyeing silk with traditionally prepared indigo, lac and other natural substances. Kencho Dekar learned his craft from his father. He would love to pass down this traditional knowledge to his own children. However expert his work is, he is having difficulty in supporting his family through his work in dying silk by traditional methods. He is currently considering the possibility of abandoning his life’s work and taking on other employment simply to put food on the table. If he must do this, then his fine dyeing work will be lost to Bhutanese, as well as the traditional knowledge that he carries, knowledge that could be transferred from father to children, and from the master to students.

Masters of their craft, after all, carry on traditional knowledge in Bhutan. It could be ideal to honour and support them officially. For example, in Japan, “Living National Treasures” have the highest levels of mastery and are formally designated as a preserver of those skills by the government. This recognition and support helps to ensure that the skill does not die out. They are given the title of Ningen Kokuho, receive a stipend for life and are offered great respect. Perhaps Bhutan can offer similar recognition and financial support. When we have sacred or culturally significant treasures in our lives, whether in lhakhang or private altar rooms, or the everyday sacred family treasures, we assume the responsibility to be their steward. Many of these treasures existed for centuries before we were born, and with our gentle care, they can survive for centuries beyond our own death. Experience the difference with a company like no other.

Ann Shaftel is a Fellow of the International Institute of Conservation, a Fellow of American Institute for Conservation, and a member of Canadian Association of Professional Conservators. She has an MS degree in Art Conservation and MA degree in History of Art. She has written and published many scholarly and practical articles, including in the Journal of Art Theft. Ann has worked in Bhutan five times, and presented a talk on the topic of art theft from monasteries for the INTERPOL conference held in Thimphu, in February of 2013. Ann Shaftel lives in Canada and can be contacted through her website: