Anupam Sah, Head of Art Conservation, Research and Training, CSMVS Museum Art Conservation Centre
Art conservators-restorers, for the sake of explanation, are doctors for works of art, and are well trained both in the sciences and humanities as well as in skills of working with their hands. They are trained to recognize the objective signs of damage to an artwork, and coupled with an understanding of the materials with which an artwork is created, are able to diagnose how the deterioration is proceeding. They implement remedial treatment to arrest the damage in order to enhance the longevity of the artwork. After treatment of the work, they recommend maintenance plans or preventive conservation for the artworks. At times they take recourse to restoration of the visual aspect of the artwork in order to re-establish the ‘message’ of the artwork.
Art conservation aspirants
As this profession can sustain a variety of skills and interests, people from diverse backgrounds try their hand in this field. Aspirants need to have an interest in the fine arts as well as in the sciences, show inclination to study diverse subjects, have manual dexterity and a love for working with ones hands, an eye for detail and powers of observation and visualization. To become an art conservator, a person having the interests mentioned above, can either join first as an apprentice or intern, attend short term workshops, and if the interest persists, one can take up a formal course in art conservation. After initial training, work experience is what builds up the skills and credibility. One of the things that one learns about this career is that one has to constantly update knowledge of materials, technologies and advances in a variety of disciplines. There seem to be no sustainable shortcuts in this profession, and neither is this a short road.
Any job that we do brings us a salary, but more importantly, every job, over the years, helps in the development of a person in terms of experience, expertise, personality and enlarges ones spheres of interest. The scope of growth therefore could be in the initial profession, but could also be in allied professions that one’s primary profession links up with, depending on each individual’s skills and interest sets. The scope for growth depends a lot on how much one’s own interest is in the job and in what direction does one want the growth to lead. The advantage with art conservation is that because it involves such a variety of disciplines, one can move on at different tangents and take up or build up professions in related sectors. For those who may be keen to continue and make art conservation their profession should get trained according to the level of training suitable for them and their skill sets.
Levels of training required
After understanding the overarching principles of art conservation, trainees work towards building skills in the conservation-restoration of either or a combination of various materials like manuscripts, prints and drawings, paintings on canvas, sculptures, objects, wall paintings, photographs, film, and now new media. Each of these sub sectors need working hands at different levels - There are those who have basic education and can be trained to do careful and repetitive work. Then at the next level are those who are, in addition, also capable of supervising teams. At another level are those who are willing to take responsibility and are capable of taking decisions on what the correct diagnosis is and what treatment methodology would be the right one to follow, and implement it efficiently. The craftsperson’s communities also need to be tapped judiciously for their involvement in heritage conservation efforts.
The trainees should work towards building up on the following qualities: sincerity, manual skills, attention to detail, zero error work, ability to innovate, research and academic skills, ability to visualise, plan and implement parallel works, ability to take informed decisions based on technical, art historical, and philosophical parameters related to the work of art, communication and management skills.
Conservation education in India
In India, a Masters programme presently lasts about 2 years and this just about prepares you with the basics. In other countries, a full fledged course lasts five years. People join usually after graduation or post graduation, but some at the technician level also join after school and continue their studies simultaneously. Since the early nineties, a Masters programme in Art Conservation is being conducted by the National Museum Institute in Delhi, and since a few years back another by the Delhi Institute of Heritage Management. Hopefully a full fledged Masters Programme should commence in 2015-16 in Mumbai in partnership with the CSMVS Museum Art Conservation Centre.
Short term programmes are conducted by various institutions in most of the States of India. Museology courses in various States of India have an element of art conservation as part of their syllabi. In Mumbai, a diploma programme on museology and preventive conservation is awarded by the University of Mumbai and is conducted at the CSMVS. St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai has embedded a preventive art conservation course in its Ancient Indian History and Culture Masters programme.
In the government sector, the Archaeological Survey of India conducts courses for potential staff, as does the National Research Laboratory for Conservation of Cultural Property for interested persons. The Ministry of Culture, Government of India is very encouraging in the way it is providing opportunities for conservation of cultural heritage in India. The National Mission for Manuscripts regularly conducts programmes for manuscripts conservation.
Students and mid level professionals from India go abroad on scholarships to various countries. Recently, under the Govt. of India, Ministry of Culture and Andrew Mellon Foundation scholarships, more than 15 art conservators have been awarded fellowships at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, USA) and at SRAL (Maastricht, Netherlands). Various foundations such as INLAKS, Charles Wallace Foundation, NTICVA etc provide scholarships. People for these scholarships are selected based on evidence of commitment and on realistic plans of how they want to contribute to the conservation of cultural heritage in India.
With the positive atmosphere encouraging heritage conservation in India, It is even more important that all our current courses run by the various training delivery platforms need to be attentively reviewed and restructured if necessary. Attention has to be paid to what quality of theory and practical skills are we able to impart to our young entrants who commit to spend these few years in our institutions. As we so often compare art conservation with other professions, all of us educators, students and training institutions are morally obliged to be ready to demonstrate similar or better levels of commitment to academic rigour and standards. This has then to be coupled creating opportunities in the hundreds of institutions in India for better work and remuneration profiles.
The journal of the Indian Association for Conservation of Cultural Property is a journal that has been consistently published year after year, since the 1960s. There is a fair amount of conservation work done in India and a small portion of that is reported. Workshops on academic writing and reporting may well be called for in the immediate future.
A fresh graduate of art conservation must first get work experience with the various art conservation institutions and practitioners in India. There are central government and state government museums, archives, libraries and universities that have positions for art conservators. A number of other private and non government institutions work in the field of conservation of cultural heritage and implement projects in which jobs are available. Those who have entrepreneurial skills can mobilize larger working teams and provide employment to others. Experienced art conservators also dedicate time and energy to teach conservation as part of their social responsibility and for many it is a work option too. Work opportunities are increasing as the government, institutions, well meaning individuals, businesses and corporate houses are paying attention to heritage conservation as one of the aspects of social development.
Dissemination of art conservation in India
In India, presently, the learning and dissemination of most of the conservation literature is in English. It may well be worth considering that a large number of people might be more comfortable in understanding, writing and reporting in a vernacular language. We are now working in that direction. Once the practice of dissemination of art conservation in our vernacular languages gains currency along with a well directed sharing and understanding of conservation literature in English, the combination will have a positive impact on the manner in which art conservation practice is perceived in India. The profusion of styles, cultures, materials, technologies, oral traditions and other intangible associations and languages, make India a natural home for a multi-lingual conservation education effort.