Thursday, November 25, 2010

Object Conservation at DAI

Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah’s own Sophie Budden, head of the Conservation team, was the presenter on Wednesday. Sophie’s very informative lecture was accompanied by a selection of photographs showing the activities of Conservation at DAI.

Having recently started work at DAI, I haven’t yet understood the amount of effort and time that is needed to look after a large number of antique objects as substantial as The al-Sabah Collection.

With 22,619 objects currently in the collection, it is crucial that the objects are in safe care for long term storage. One of the most important aspects is that the conservators are able to maintain and control the environmental conditions. Different kinds of objects have to be separated into different storage facilities so the humidity can be controlled with either humidifiers or dehumidifiers.

The conservators try to protect the objects from any form of harm, but sometimes life brings unexpected misfortune. In 2008, The al-Sabah Collection had to deal with some unwanted visitors—a moth infestation. Unfortunately, some of the objects were damaged. But before any further damage would be done, the conservators were able to get rid of the moths. What they had to do was wrap all the textiles (which the moths feasted on) and place them in a plastic tent outside in the heat. The tent’s temperature would rapidly increase to 180 degrees! And that extreme temperature killed the moths. So you have to understand how cautious a conversation team has to be when looking after precious objects. One open window or door can bring another moth attack.

The above picture was taken by one of the conservators showing a damaged textile (left)—and  as sad as it is that the textile was slightly damaged, leave it to a conservator with an aesthetic eye to appreciate the beauty of a tiny moth cocoon (right) made up of ancient fibers from the carpet!

Most of the Conservation department’s time consists of cleaning and taking care of the objects; and with 22,619 objects in The al-Sabah Collection keeping record of everything is extremely important. DAI has its own customized database. In this database, everything is recorded about each object. You would find a picture of it, the name, code, description, condition, as well as other information such as its suitability for travelling.

The pieces in The al-Sabah Collection are constantly on loan to museums all over world—from Los Angeles, to St. Petersburg, to Kuala Lumpur. Sophie began to discuss the difficulties of assembling objects for traveling exhibitions such as Treasury of the World and DAI’s most recent exhibition al-Fann. An enormous effort is needed by everyone to display objects carefully. Many carpets from the al-Fann exhibition required 25 people to install!

The objects have to be repeatedly inspected to see if they are fit for not only travelling to one destination, but to be part of a touring exhibition. It is important to know if the object will be able to withstand going to different countries with different climates.

Sophie also showed us how they were able to fix some objects that were destroyed during the Iraqi invasion. As well as showing us photographs of objects before and after cleaning.

    12th century dish destroyed then fixed after the Iraqi invasion.

The photos above show a dish that was restored before it became part of The al-Sabah Collection (top).  Manual Keene (The al-Sabah Collection’s curator) noticed that the design didn’t make sense and for a dish of this style the inscription would have gone all around the rim. The two images (below) show the dish, with the help of DAI's team, being fixed and now the design began to make more sense. There is more information about the discovery of this mistake and the restoration of ceramics similar to this one in the book Ceramics From Islamic Lands "Kuwait National Museum and The al-Sabah Collection".

    Cleaning objects: a photograph showing the before and after of a 7th 
    century silver lion.

The objects have to be carefully cleaned under a microscope with a small scalpel and it takes a month to 6 weeks for one piece. Sophie announced exciting news that DAI will obtain a laser cleaner this coming year. The laser cleaner was only recently available for art and now it will make the process of cleaning much easier. They will be able to clean some objects that couldn’t be cleaned using a microscope and scalpel. Now there will be no risk of damage to the objects and it will cut down working hours by 70 to 80 percent!

The Conservation team is also responsible for testing, pigment identification, wood identification and always gaining further knowledge of each object. The analysis of an object without causing it any harm can be a difficult task. In addition to the laser cleaner, DAI will receive another new machine that will make it easier to analyze the objects.

Sophie’s lecture was extremely informative and interesting. It was very exciting to have the opportunity to see what goes on behind the scenes, and to understand the amount of work required by DAI’s Conservation team to care for The al-Sabah Collection.

Fortunately, for those of you who were not able to attend the lecture, Sophie provided us with a copy of the slideshow where you can view below!


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