Session 3: Wall Paintings

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After watching those inspiring presentations and breath-taking virtual tours on day one, the attendees of the 28th IIC Congress were treated with a virtual trip across the globe on the second day. We travelled to India, China, Denmark, Cyprus and Malta, learning about the complexity and challenges for conservation of wall paintings.

Mr. Kaoru Suemori shared a historical record of conservation work done in the 1980s in at the Fengguo Temple in China. Ms. Sibylla Tringham highlighted some of the challenges they faced while working in the wall painting projects in Malta, Cyprus and India. Ms Kathrine Segel presented a paper on the use of hydrogels to clean ingrained soot from medieval wall paintings in Copenhagen and discussed its future potential as a novel cleaning method. Ms. Chiara Pasian presented a comparative study of lab testing and on-site implementation of water-reduced injection grouts for the stabilization of wall paintings. In this blog post I am sharing five takeaways that I learnt when attending the wall painting session.

  1. Your Documentation will be a time capsule for future - so document everything:  Documentation is an integral part of conservation work. It allows others to understand and learn from previous work. In his presentation, Mr. Kaoru Suemori shared images of large cracks on the wall that were documented in the 1980s. Those images and records have helped his team assess the long-term effectiveness of treatments and materials. We should be improving our documentation practice and taking full advantage of new technologies.
  2. Results derived from lab test and on-site may often vary: Laboratory testing gives us the ability to control environment, duration, intensity and verify the chemical reactions taking place in an experiment. It gives us the power to monitor, observe and record the situation. As pointed out by Ms. Chiara Pasian, during the time of their actual intervention in the desert region of Nagaur where the RH was recorded as 20% and temperature up to 40 degrees, the rate of evaporation and environmental parameters had to be considered and changes were made to the solution accordingly. She emphasised the need for testing on field.
  3. Preventive Measures are favoured: As pointed out by Ms. Sibylla Tringham, Interventions can be unpredictable and the results cannot be evaluated on physical evidences alone, since unwanted effects may not be detectable and/or be delayed. It is now widely recognised that best practice for conserving wall paintings is to approach it as a site-wide objective, incorporating contextual and environmental considerations.  
  4. There is always a bigger picture: Ms Katherine told an anecdote of how, as a child, she would spend her summer holidays looking at paintings and other Danish treasures with her parents. It gave her insights into the daily life of people in the Middle Ages. Built heritage reflects our history, it helps us to understand and respect people who lived before us, their different habits, their traditions. They are a standing testimony of human creativity and innovation. As pointed out by Ms Sibylla, if the value of a site is derived from its historic integrity, interventions that only stabilize paintings may be viewed as insufficient. I personally feel that conservation exercises should be used a catalyst to involve the local community and get their participation. Conservators need to collaborate with custodians and stakeholders. An active involvement of civil society is the best way to safeguard heritage and create opportunities for human and economic development.
  5. Respect to our predecessors: Conservators always face a dilemma.  Many factors such as the environmental conditions, availability of conservation materials, or an urgent need to arrest an irretrievable loss could force us to undertake a conservation intervention that may have unpredictable consequences in the long run. The only reason many of these sites we visited in our session like Fengguo Temple in China or the Danish treasures that probably inspired Katherine to become a conservator still exist is because of the tireless efforts by hundreds of art conservators and restorers working before us. We need to respect their attempts of conservation and clinically document their impact. As very well stated by Professor. Norman Tennent during the Forbes Prize Lecture, as conservation scientists we are remembered by our publications, our interaction with other scientists, and by the influence we have on students and those that follow after us.  


Namrata Patel is a practicing conservator in Mumbai, India.