Collaborative project with Northumbria University

by Bettina Ebert

May 19, 2011

In 2005, Witness Collection approached the Conservation Unit at Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne in the UK, for advice on suitable care and conservation of rare and fragile Vietnamese art works belonging to its collection. To support further investigation, Witness Collection arranged a research trip to Vietnam by Jean Brown, a senior faculty member, to see first-hand, art works, materials and painting storage conditions in the country. The collection also made available to the Conservation Unit historical art materials that it had collected from artists around Vietnam. Since it became clear that art works in Vietnam were degrading much more rapidly than was usual in other countries – and yet conservation capabilities in the Southeast Asian region meant little was being done about it – it was agreed to start a collaborative research project. The initial aim was to investigate the condition and causes of deterioration of Vietnamese paintings, as well as their stabilisation and treatment.

Two oil paintings from 1963 by artist Nguyễn Trọng Kiệm were chosen as initial case studies for the project. Under the supervision of senior faculty specialists, it was decided to provide a conservation student at the university with the opportunity of investigating these paintings as part of a Masters thesis and, in 2006, Sally MacMillan took on this task.

Sally undertook rigorous examination of the art works’ condition. Subsequently, paint samples were taken in order to undertake scientific analysis with the aim of learning more about the material composition of the paintings, as well as subsequent degradation processes which could have led to their deteriorated condition. Extensive analytical work gradually shed light on the materials and processes at work. A story on the initial investigative phase of the project was published inNewsweek in March 2008.

Due to the complexity of the project, Sally had insufficient time to complete the full investigation and treatment of the paintings. I joined Northumbria University in 2006 in order to obtain a Masters degree in Paintings Conservation. During the first year of my two-year course, I was able to follow Sally’s investigative progress and, when the research project was offered to my year group in late 2007, I chose to take on the task, having become interested in the paintings.

In addition to running further analytical tests to pull together all the loose threads of the research, I had to devise a treatment approach that would allow the paintings to be successfully conserved. The main problem related to chemical reactions which had occurred as a result of degradation processes, which had resulted in oil paint being converted into a highly water-soluble compound. In addition, the paint was extremely brittle and flaking severely, making consolidation the most important task. Teaching staff had warned me of the difficulty involved, as the paintings’ condition was unlike any they had come across before, and none of Sally’s consolidation tests had been successful.

Nevertheless, I stubbornly began testing one conservation-grade adhesive after another, hoping that a suitable consolidant would be found which would re-adhere the flaking paint and not alter the matte surface appearance of the paintings. After months of testing, a suitable treatment approach was finally developed, which allowed me to successfully treat the paintings within a relatively short space of time.

After having spent such an intense time with the paintings, my interest in the degradation and treatment of Southeast Asian paintings had been nurtured, and I was sorry to say goodbye to this specialist field. However, I was fortunate to be approached by the Executive Director of Witness Collection, Adrian Jones, who invited me to join the team and set up the conservation studio for Asiarta Foundation, which I began in early 2009.

Due to the success of this initial research project, the collaboration with Northumbria University is ongoing. Currently, a project is being developed for investigation of Vietnamese art works on paper, to determine the deterioration processes involved, as well as suitable treatment approaches. Many wartime art works were created under difficult conditions, sometimes using non-standard materials, such as clothing dye, usually on paper. These art works record an important part of 20th century world history and their conservation treatment is essential to safeguard them for future generations.


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