By Johanna Runkel, Gabriela Krist, Tanushree Gupta
The Institute of Conservation of the University of Applied Arts Vienna has been active in Trivandrum in Kerala, South India since 2016. The main project partner is Napier Museum, one of the oldest museums in the country, with a high-quality collection of bronze and wooden sculptures, coins, furniture, and temple pieces from the region. The project’s aim is to implement strategies for collection care and preventive conservation in the Museum and thus improve the conditions for preserving the collection. Preventive conservation includes all measures that endeavour to avoid and minimize future deterioration or loss, already in the run-up phase. The measures are indirect; they are carried out within the context - or on the surroundings - of the individual objects and the collection as a whole.
In a tropical region such as Kerala, climate is a challenge for preservation. Throughout the year, relative humidity in the region is between 65% and 85%, while the average temperatures lie between 25°C and 30°C. In these conditions, pests and vermin propagate with extreme rapidity, and it is also a favourable environment for corrosion, degradation processes of organic materials, and mould growth. Nevertheless, a major part of the objects in Napier Museum are in stable condition. These objects have been accommodated for decades without air conditioning in the well-ventilated historical building dating from 1880. In contrast, the objects in the rather newly built museum depot showed signs of mould growth, insect infestation, and corrosion by 2016. This depot is an annex attached to the historical museum building; it is a walled-up side terrace without windows or openings. The builders ignored the historic ventilation system. Hence this produced a relative humidity level in the depot that was even higher than outside levels, yielding material degradation and deterioration. In addition, the storage of objects on open shelves exposed them to the accumulation of dust and soiling. Lack of space prevented efficient cleaning of the room and the objects. These major risks to the preservation of the Museum’s collection were defined in the first workshop, held in February 2016. The workshop was organised by the Government of Kerala and its advisor, Professor M.V. Nair, with the goal to improve the exhibition and storage of the collection. It was held by the Institute’s team; participants included Museum staff, local experts, and Indian students. As an outcome, the group developed a roadmap for the future of collection care and preventive conservation at Napier Museum.
The first step of implementation was taken in February 2017 under the guidance of the Institute’s team. The Austrian team, museum staff, and students of the National Museum Institute in New Delhi cleared out the entire depot, reviewed the inventory, cleaned the objects, and relocated them to an interim depot. Owing to the lack of space within the existing museum depot, building a new depot on the museum ground was highly recommended. The new construction should not include air-conditioning devices, because of their high maintenance and energy consumption, but should rely instead on the traditional building methods of Kerala which deploy high-quality materials and a sophisticated ventilation system.
In the coming years the museum building, which is a monument in and of itself, will be renovated by Indian architects. Because of the construction work, the whole collection has to be relocated. For this reason, in September 2017 another workshop was organised, this time focusing on the handling and movement of objects and on the packing of objects for transport and storage. In this workshop, various methods were explored theoretically and practically.
In Austria, and in temperate climate zones in general, conservators often use acid-free cardboard boxes or acid-free tissue paper for the storage of objects. These materials are out of the question in the predominantly high-humidity climate of Kerala, as they have a hygroscopic effect. In the worst case, they soak up moisture like a sponge and thus create a breeding ground for pests and mould. So for Kerala, the following parameters were set. Packing materials should be kept to a minimum, and ideally they should be cost-efficient and available at the local market in Trivandrum. Moreover, they should be synthetic and should allow ventilation and air exchange. Finally, after a long search, polyethylene- and polypropylene-based materials, which were supposed to meet these parameters, were found at the local market in Trivandrum. Unfortunately, Oddy testing in the lab demonstrated that these materials emitted concentrations of pollutants that were too high even for temporary usage. So the search must go on. For the time being, the Museum has the option of ordering museum quality Tyvek (nonwoven polyethylene sheeting) and Ethafoam (expanded polyethylene blocks) from a company in Delhi.
In the course of the next two years, the museum building will be renovated and a new depot erected. In February 2019 the Institute of Conservation will again be at the Museum’s disposal with practical workshops and planning aids for further steps and progress, whether in the depot or in the exhibition space.
Johanna Runkel studied conservation at the University of Applied Arts Vienna and has worked at the University since 2012 as University assistant. Her research focused on collection care and preventive conservation in Austria as well as internationally. At present she is pursuing her PhD at the Institute of Conservation with a focus on the collection of the monastery Neukloster, its history, conservation and collection care.
Gabriela Krist has been a professor at the University of Applied Arts Vienna, Institute of Conservation, since 1999. She studied conservation at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, as well as art history and archaeology in Vienna and Salzburg. For many years she worked for ICCROM in Rome and at the Austrian Federal Office for the Care of Monuments (Bundesdenkmalamt).
Tanushree Gupta completed her doctoral studies in art conservation in 2016 at the National Museum Institute, New Delhi, where she had also obtained her master degree in 2010. She was a PhD intern at the Institute of Conservation, University of Applied Arts Vienna under three scholarships and has now been a member of the team since 2015.