Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Surprises and learnings at the Heritage Conservation Centre

"Liu Kang's works! Georgette Chen's works!" These were my exclamations from the pleasant surprises that I had sighted during a very special visit to the Heritage Conservation Centre. What on earth is the Heritage Conservation Centre?

In brief, the Heritage Conservation Centre is the custodian of the collections that are under the care of the National Heritage Board. It manages and preserves the museum collection of the National Heritage Board. As such, it serves two key functions: 1) collection management and 2) conservation.

It was my very first visit to the Heritage Conservation Centre on 6 Apr 2011. Thanks to the wonderful team at I Love Museums and the Heritage Conservation Centre, I was able to gain privileged access to visit the Heritage Conservation Centre. Together with at least ten other participants, we were given a special tour about the Heritage Conservation Centre by its Assistant Director, Mr Robin Liu.

To care for and to protect the collection, visitors and staff who visit the non-public spaces of the Heritage Conservation Centre would have to observe the following:
1) No food and drink.
2) No personal belonging (lockers will be provided at the public areas).
3) No camera (for confidentiality).
4) Be careful. No touching of the artefacts.

Interestingly, I was told that some of the staff members of the Heritage Conservation Centre would change into a different pair of shoes before they enter the non-public spaces to do their work. This is their thoughtful way not to introduce soil and living organisms into the non-public spaces as these can potentially hasten the deterioration of the collection.

During this visit, I realise the vulnerability that all artefacts would be subjected to. While preserving an artefact for eternity would be an ideal, it is more realistic to think of one of the goals of conservation as slowing down the effects of deterioration on an artefact.

What are the various factors of deterioration?

Photo Credit: Heritage Conservation Centre
Many thanks to Azyure D. Hikari from Urban Explorers of Singapore for the help to scan the photos.

We learnt at the visit that the factors of deterioration can be broadly categorised as such:
1) light
2) relative humidity
3) temperature
4) pests
5) pollution
6) and physical damage caused by accidents or mishandling.

Our guide for the day, Mr Robin Liu, enlightened us with interesting strategies that are used by the Heritage Conservation Centre to minimise the devastating effects of the various factors of deterioration. One of the interesting things I have learnt is that the Heritage Conservation Centre use a 3-tier air purification system so as that the air that enters the centre is free from pollution. Polluted air can corrode an artefact over time.

In addition, there is no window at the storage and repository areas of the centre. This is to prevent the contact of UV rays from sunlight with the collection. Even when there are windows at the work-area so as to aid the staff members in their tasks of accurate colour matching under natural light, special windows that block out UV rays are used.

The pest eradication procedures that are used came across to me as interesting. Two of the commonly used methods to eliminate pests are 1) freezing, and 2) Controlled Atmosphere Treatment. In the latter, nitrogen is carefully passed through water and introduced into an artefact that is stored in airtight bags. Oxygen is gradually removed. I learnt that the Controlled Atmosphere Treatment takes a considerable length of time (approximately 30 days of treatment).

We also learnt that conservation can be broadly divided into two categories: 1) Preventive Conservation and 2) Interventive Conservation. The former deals with protecting and caring for the artefact largely through minimising the effects of factors of deterioration. The latter deals with taking interventions to repair and restore damaged artefacts.

My favourite part of the visit was the tour about the workspaces where Interventive Conservation takes place. At the Heritage Conservation Centre, a damaged artefact would be classified under one of these four material classifications and be conserved accordingly. These four classifications are: 1) object, 2) painting, 3) textile, and 4) paper.

I was most thrilled to be able to see a few of Liu Kang's works even before they are displayed in an upcoming public exhibition of Liu Kang's artworks scheduled to be held this July! (please view source here) One of the staff members even demonstrated how he remove an adhesive tape from one of Liu Kang's pastel works.The tape was probably a result of previous mounting but it is not part of the original artwork.

For your information, Liu Kang (1911 - 2004) is one of Singapore's pioneer artists. He is closely affiliated with the development of the Nanyang art syle in Singapore, together with other pioneer artists.

Throughout the entire visit at the Heritage Conservation Centre, I learnt that one of the key code of ethics of conservation is that of reversibility. That means that whatever the conservator does to any piece of artefact should technically be reversible.

The tour also covered the storage and repository areas of the Heritage Conservation Centre. I became excited when I caught sight of artworks by Georgette Chen and Anthony Poon. Many of the artefacts in the storage areas looked familiar to me albeit I could not instantly recall where I had seen them.

Overall, I am deeply impressed by the tremendous amount of care and thoughtfulness that the team at the Heritage Conservation Centre takes to protect and to care for the collection. Many thanks to the Heritage Conservation Centre, the National Heritage Board, and I Love Museums for organising this visit. I did not realise that time had passed so tremendously fast during the visit precisely because I have enjoyed every bit of it.

Photo Credit: Belinda Tan.
That was not the end of the hype. To conclude the visit, I Love Museums hosted a lunch affair at the Standing Sushi Bar at SAM@8Q for the fans who were chosen for this visit to the Heritage Conservation Centre. During the lunch, I had the pleasure to interact with a few of the heritage enthuasiasts and the wonderful team from the National Heritage Board.

Wonderful company, a fantastic and thoughtfully arranged visit to the Heritage Conservation Centre and a delicious lunch. I have a lot to be thankful for. All these were possible because "I like" the I Love Museums page and took some part in a few of its contests. So if you like this post and have yet to be a fan of I Love Museums page, please click on "I like" now!

Heritage Conservation Centre
32 Jurong Port Road
Singapore 619104

Visits are strictly by appointment only.

Please contact:
Tel: +65 6267 2618
Fax: +65 6267-2628


Clip art source:


Lam Chun See said...

Thank you for the thorough and easy to read report. Wonder how you managed to remember so many details.

oceanskies79 said...

Hi Chun See, thank you for your compliments. I guess it helps to blog within 24 hours after the event. In addition, I have scribbled a few notes to help me in recall.

Unknown said...

Happy to see that you're now more and more a part of us, having seen the secret sciences behind the arts. :) As a biologist by training (who took Chemistry as a module in year 1), I've always marveled at the process of restoring paintings and keeping them in pristine condition many years after. Thanks for the lovingly written report.

oceanskies79 said...

Cool Insider: Thank you for your compliments. It is my pleasure and joy to share about the visit. :)