Giv­ing his­tor­i­cal relics a new lease of life

China Daily (Canada) - - SHANGHAI -

A doc­u­men­tary ti­tled Masters in the For­bid­den City that was re­cently screened in China sheds light into the in­trigu­ing craft of restor­ing pre­cious relics in the Im­pe­rial Palace.

The two-part doc­u­men­tary, com­pris­ing a fea­ture film and a 3-episode tele­vi­sion series, was listed as one of the top 10 doc­u­men­taries on Douban.com, a ma­jor Chi­nese arts and cul­ture por­tal.

The pro­gram has also pro­pelled some of the per­son­al­i­ties on screen to fame. Wang Jin, of the restora­tion ex­perts fea­tured in the show, has since the doc­u­men­tary’s re­lease been in­vited to nu­mer­ous tele­vi­sion talk shows.

What is not men­tioned in the doc­u­men­tary, how­ever, is that many of th­ese es­teemed crafts­men were from the Shang­hai Mu­seum back in the 1950s.

Ac­cord­ing to Wu Laim­ing, head of the con­ser­va­tion cen­ter of the Shang­hai Mu­seum, the in­sti­tu­tion opened its first restora­tion work­shop in 1958 and had brought to­gether renowned crafts­men from Suzhou and Yangzhou, two ci­ties fa­mous for the restora­tion of Chi­nese paint­ings. The fol­low­ing year, a group of th­ese crafts­men were sec­onded to the Palace Mu­seum in Bei­jing and they went on to build them­selves an il­lus­tri­ous ca­reer in the For­bid­den City.

The restora­tion skills of the Shang­hai Mu­seum’s crafts­men are not just cov­eted in the coun­try. Es­tab­lished mu­se­ums all over the world, such as the Bri­tish Mu­seum, the Her­mitage Mu­seum in Rus­sia and the Freer Gallery of Art in the United States, have worked with restora­tion ex­perts from the Shang­hai Mu­seum to re­ju­ve­nate their col­lec­tions of Chi­nese art.

The Shang­hai Mu­seum takes great pride in the qual­ity of their restora­tion works. And such is their com­mit­ment to per­fec­tion that new crafts­men who join the in­sti­tu­tion need to un­dergo eight years of ap­pren­tice­ship be­fore they can op­er­ate in­de­pen­dently.

Ex­perts from the Shang­hai Mu­seum would painstak­ingly source for ma­te­ri­als and col­ors most iden­ti­cal to the one used in the art­work be­fore mas­ter­fully blend­ing them in. They are so skilled in their craft that peo­ple aren’t able to find traces of the restora­tion when their work is com­plete.

Chi­nese paint­ings and cal­lig­ra­phy works can be re­stored mul­ti­ple times and they can re­main in good con­di­tion for more than a cen­tury, de­pend­ing on the qual­ity of the restora­tion work and the stor­age con­di­tions.

Art restora­tion is a con­tro­ver­sial topic in the in­ter­na­tional mu­seum com­mu­nity. Some Western mu­se­ums ar­gue that the de­fects should not be cor­rected as any ad­di­tion would ren­der the art­work coun­ter­feit. Some also be­lieve that a re­stored art­work that looks too per­fect might be mis­taken as a fake.

“But you see, when peo­ple re­store an­cient mu­rals in cathe­drals, the images are re­stored as well. They would not leave an im­age in­com­plete and con­sider the work ac­com­plished,” said Chu Hao, a mount­ing artist and restora­tion ex­pert from Shang­hai Mu­seum who spe­cial­izes in Chi­nese paint­ings and cal­lig­ra­phy works.

Chu also em­pha­sized that the tech­niques used by the crafts­men at Shang­hai Mu­seum do not com­pro­mise the in­tegrity of the relic be­cause the restora­tion work is re­versible and leaves no mark on the orig­i­nal.

Zhang Pe­ichen, a restora­tion crafts­man for bronze art­works at the Shang­hai Mu­seum, ar­gued that the restora­tion work is un­de­tectable “only be­cause you fail to de­tect it”. He said that with the right equip­ment and tech­nol­ogy, the re­stored ar­eas can be iden­ti­fied and un­done with­out dam­ag­ing the art­work.

Ac­cord­ing to Wu, the mu­seum re­lies on state-of-the-art tech­nol­ogy to aid in the restora­tion process. For in­stance, some of the pig­ments used in the orig­i­nal art­work are no longer avail­able in the mod­ern age, so ex­perts use tech­nol­ogy to de­ter­mine the best pos­si­ble al­ter­na­tive.

Apart from restora­tion works, the Shang­hai Mu­seum also pro­vides con­sul­tancy on mu­seum de­sign, man­age­ment and mea­sures to pro­tect art­works against earth­quakes.

“Con­ser­va­tion and pro­tec­tion also means tak­ing pre­cau­tions ahead of time. For ex­am­ple, there are dif­fer­ent types of rust on metal. Some pro­tect the metal from fur­ther ero­sion while oth­ers are con­ta­gious and will speed up the ero­sion,” said Wu.

“Now there are sci­en­tific meth­ods we can use to find the best so­lu­tions to such prob­lems.”

Due to the rapid ad­vance­ment of tech­nol­ogy and strong gov­ern­ment sup­port over the last decade, the con­ser­va­tion and pro­tec­tion departments in China’s mu­se­ums have achieved much progress, added Wu.

In 2015, the Shang­hai Mu­seum launched a new con­ser­va­tion cen­ter that is equipped with hi-tech equip­ment, such as the coun­try’s largest CT scan­ner which en­ables re­searchers to per­form in­tri­cate ex­am­i­na­tions of an art­work.

PHO­TOS BY GAO ERQIANG / CHINA DAILY

The ex­perts from the Shang­hai Mu­seum are known for their abil­ity to leave no traces of re­pair be­hind on the ar­ti­facts they re­store.

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