Improving preservation parameters at the Napier Museum, Trivandrum, Kerala by Tanushree Gupta

User menu

Napier Museum. © Napier Museum, Photo: Subhash Kowdiar

Kerala is a state on the Malabar Coast in southern India. The Napier Museum is a landmark in the capital city of Kerala, Trivandrum, famous both for its architecture and exquisite masterpieces.
The museum started in its current form in 1857, its inception due to the efforts of J.A. Brown, Director of Trivandrum Observatory, and General William Cullen, a British resident who wanted to encourage arts and crafts. The collection was first presented in the bungalow of William Cullen.
In 1872, Lord Napier, then Governor of Madras, sent the British architect Robert Fellowes Chisholm to Travancore to design a museum building. Chisholm’s design attempted to promote native local art. Typical of the Indo-Saracenic style, he drew elements from Indo-Islamic and Indian architecture and combined it with the Gothic revival and Neo-Classical styles favoured in the Victorian era.
In 1880, the building began to serve as a museum and was named after Lord Napier. It has been modified various times. The storage, for example, is a later addition. The complex houses as well a Natural History Museum and a Zoological Park. The Napier Museum today exhibits more than 550 objects. The major collections include metal sculptures from the 8th to 18th century AD. The art is inspired by the existing religious faiths. The guidelines for iconographic details and bronze casting of these works are taken from the traditional texts of ‘Silpashastras’ and ‘Matsyapurana’ respectively. The collection is also rich in stone objects, e.g. the 2nd century ‘Gandhara’ to the 18th century Kerala sculptures, depicting influences of Chera, Chola, Pallava, Pandya and Vijayanagara empires. Carvings in kumble wood form an integral part of the collection. In addition, the museum is endowed with musical instruments, masks, ivory carvings, ancient coins and textiles.
The Napier Museum represents a cultural vastness which has to be preserved for future generations. The present exhibition required a rearrangement of the collection and additional measures for preventive conservation. Deteriorations of the collection with passage of time, aggravated by the hot and humid weather condition have been a great concern for the museum authorities.
To start strategic planning for the preservation and conservation of collection, the Government of Kerala has constituted an experts’ committee which invited suggestions from the Institute of Conservation, University of Applied Arts Vienna, a former partner already known from major Indo-Austrian collaboration projects.
In February 2016, a four day workshop on ‘Conservation of Tangible Heritage with Special Reference to the Napier Museum Trivandrum’, conducted by the Institute of Conservation, Gabriela Krist (Head of Institute), Tanja Kimmel, Johanna Wilk, Tanushree Gupta, gathered local experts, curators, conservators and researchers at the
Napier Museum, with the aim of understanding the present condition of the collection in exhibition and storage and to recommend measures to improve it.
The workshop encompassed essentials of collection survey and preventive conservation including risks and causes of damage, handling and care of objects, labelling in the form of lectures, demonstrations and hands-on exercises. A session dedicated to compiling condition reports allowed each attending colleague to analyse objects with a methodology introduced to them. Participants were given an overview of effects of climate and light on the collection. Problems of pests and their monitoring were also covered, as these are very concerning issues faced by tropical museums all year round. Furthermore, materials that could be used for better storage and display of objects have been discussed and demonstrated.
Based on the experience gained, in the final exercise participants worked in groups to identify strong and weak points in the exhibition and storage areas and presented their views on improving the situation in the future.

In order to guarantee long-term preservation of the objects, certain considerations have been made. As the museum lies in a tropical and coastal geographical location, the collection is exposed to climatic extremes. For this reason, climate monitoring over the period of one year is suggested in order to discover magnitudes of daily and seasonal fluctuations and to find out if the collection is subjected to danger. Similarly, cumulative effects of sun and artificial light have been discussed and restrictions on overall time of exposure, especially with respect to UV radiation, recommended.
Certain improvements in the construction of the showcases and mounting of items also has to be included in the overall plan.
The present storage shows limitation in space and lacks the necessary ventilation. A new storage space with measures for air circulation would reduce high humidity. A quarantine chamber - to isolate biologically infected objects - and a climate chamber - to store notably sensitive and fragile objects - would be a significant step towards preservation.
Equally important is the development of an emergency plan for the museum. The successful implementation of such measures at the Napier Museum can serve as a model to other museums facing similar challenges.
A series of workshops for capacity building of trained staff in different museums would be very useful for the region. The recommendations are further being presented to the Government of Kerala so that the steps for improvement could be implemented in time. The project would take preventive conservation forward as an important discipline in museums in the region.

Tanushree Gupta is conservation intern at the Institute of Conservation,
University of Applied Arts Vienna. She is a PhD candidate at the National Museum
Institute of History of Art, Conservation and Museology, New Delhi,
where she also obtained her master’s degree in Conservation and Restoration
of Works of Art in 2010.