Session 8: Collections in Historic Buildings (Conservation Challenges for Thangkas)

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Historic house museums and historic sites are an integral part of tangible and intangible cultural heritage. Their caretakers preserve these significant buildings, landscapes and objects for the future, educate the masses, commemorate historical events and significant historical figures, provide places of beauty and sustain communities by providing mutual spaces and reinforcing a shared identity. These historic buildings and landscapes are often the primary artifacts preserved, maintained, and interpreted for the public. Such sites often hold collections of historic objects, such as paintings, sculpture, furniture and other decorative arts that are similarly preserved, maintained and interpreted. These sites often carry their own unique set of challenges for preservation and maintenance. During the eighth session of the IIC Congress 2020, the attendees heard a few of these stories. One such story was narrated by Dr. Fang Xiaoji; she and her team work to preserve the thangkas in The Buddha Room of the Hall of Mental Cultivation (Yangxin Dian), Palace Museum, Beijing.  In this blogpost I present to you a summary of her talk and highlights of the Q&A session that was chaired by Caroline Checkley-Scott, Commercial Director of Conservation by Design (CXD).

The Forbidden City Palace Museum is the world’s largest existing historical wooden complex. It has more than 2,000 thangkas stored in different Buddha rooms. Built in the 11th century, the hall of the mental cultivation room is located in the southwest section of the Forbidden City. It was an important place for the emperor to administer daily government affairs. Since 2006, the Palace Museum has carried out research for the preservation of the building and the collection. Dr. Fang Xiaoji is a senior conservator at the palace museum and has been conserving the thangkas, oil paintings and mural paintings with her team.

The Buddha room currently has 38 thangkas. The thangkas are mounted on the wooden walls.  Their dimensions were determined by the size of the walls on which they would be mounted. The thangkas were painted by Lama's working in the Forbidden City. There's no heating or additional lighting in the Buddha room. Natural light comes from the large window, and the inside temperature and related humidity are greatly affected by environmental factors and seasonal changes. The thangkas are made of various materials namely paper, painting on cloth, appliqués, etc.

Long term exposure to light, combined with the impact of atmospheric pollutants and dust, fluctuating temperature and relative humidity throughout the year, along with inherent susceptibilities and complexity of the materials used all contribute to their deteriorations. Dr. Xiaoji showed the attendees some images of the conservation work that began in 2006 in collaboration with the Paris Museum. She mentioned that thorough documentation and research, included imaging and materials analysis to understand the composition and conditions of the textiles and its materials, was carried out. Dr. Xiaoji showed some visuals of the treated objects and how they now have been safely stored in the museum storage facilities.

During the live Q&A session Dr. Xiaoji expanded on the environmental challenges on site as well as the preventive conservation methods adopted. She explained that she has prepared paper boxes to store the conserved thangkas. She pointed out that the thangkas are Tibetan style and are mostly made on a delicate support like silk, so she chose the IIC Congress platform to connect with more experts and gather more suggestions. She added that the project was carried out in different phases and that the treatment phase is still an ongoing project. The team are currently deciding whether the original thangkas should be mounted and put back on display or be replaced with replicas.

I personally feel the challenges pointed out by Dr Xiaoji are universal. Managing a heritage building and its collection has been a complex and sensitive issue for many decades. Acknowledging this reality, many organisations have conducted research and collaborative programmes to protect our cultural and global heritage. Sometimes the process may seem painstakingly slow and sometimes we may even need to take a step back, rethink and reanalyse our preventive conservation strategies. All we can do is collaborate and share our knowledge for a common goal of safeguarding our cultural heritage.


 Namrata Patel is a practicing conservator in Mumbai, India.