Inside the Art Hospital, where the National Art Gallery repairs and restores art

After being closed since August 2020 for renovations, the National Art Gallery in Kuala Lumpur reopened to the public in June this year.

It was a celebratory affair as not only four exhibitions were launched at the same time – including the national permanent collection exhibition Nusa – but the Young Contemporaries Awards, or Bakat Muda Sezaman (BMS), 2021 winners, were then announced.

What has been much less hyped in the weeks since is the new National Art Repository and Conservation Center at the National Art Gallery, which is slowly becoming a public attraction.

Also known as the “Art Hospital”, the public can now tour some of the facilities and gain insight into art conservation, management and research.

It is only open on weekdays, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Housed in the National Art Gallery, this Arts Hospital the establishment includes conservation laboratories for the treatment of painting and framing; a photography and technical examination room; and repositories of paper art, sculptures, and other art objects.

Staff members of the Art Hospital access the restoration work needed for a painting at the gallery. Photo: The Star/Daryl Goh

The main laboratory used for the conservation of the paintings is equipped with instruments such as polarized light microscopes and X-ray fluorescence for detailed conservation work. Treatments such as cleaning, tear repair, image reinstatement and dubbing are carried out here by staff from the National Art Gallery’s Collections and Conservation Unit.

In the photography studio and technical examination room, artworks are examined, analyzed and documented using a variety of tools and techniques to investigate characteristics of the artwork that are not detectable in visible light. This allows the conservation unit to assess the current condition of a painting as well as its original construction.

For example, infrared cameras can provide valuable information about the internal structure of the paint, such as whether the artist drew with carbon-based compounds (eg, graphite or charcoal) before application paint.

Another commonly used technique is raking light photography, where the painting is illuminated from one side at an oblique angle to its surface, in order to reveal its surface texture.

The Curatorial Team Unit uses a variety of techniques in its work in the Collection Study Room, such as polarized light microscopy to analyze fibers and pigments on art materials such as paper.  Photo: National Gallery of ArtThe Curatorial Team Unit uses a variety of techniques in its work in the Collection Study Room, such as polarized light microscopy to analyze fibers and pigments on art materials such as paper. Photo: National Gallery of Art

Ultraviolet lamps and digital microscopy are also among the main tools and methods used in this section of the art hospital.

If this all sounds terribly technical, that’s because it is. An art restorer must have a combination of skills – chemistry, artistic flair and scientific know-how.

An accessible establishment

That said, the curator of the National Art Gallery’s collections and conservation section, Musrizal Mat Isa, is very aware of the importance of making this installation accessible to the public and stresses that education is one of the main objectives of the Art Hospital.

“The National Art Gallery is one of the agencies responsible for collecting national art treasures. Thus, having our own conservation center with a well-trained team will help us preserve our national artistic heritage in the years to come. It is our foundation to collect, conserve, preserve, exhibit and promote art at all levels of society,” says Musrizal.

The public can view the collection of sculptures and works of art at the Art Hospital through a “glass tunnel”. Photo: National Gallery of Art

“In the long term, we hope to contribute to the inculcation of a greater awareness, understanding and appreciation of art among the wider masses,” he adds.

While the Art Hospital provides consultation, restoration and collection storage services, it also strives to promote a better understanding and appreciation of art among the public.

“As such, we plan to have frequent demonstrations and workshops. We have a collection study room where visitors can observe the work we do behind the scenes. It gives them a chance to watch it “live” to experience it for themselves. Guided tours are also planned, to make your visit to the art hospital a memorable and informative experience,” says Musrizal.

The collection study space it refers to is used for collection research and advisory services. Demonstrations of conservation work are carried out there, including finishing. It occupies an area of ​​more than 300 m².

The other Art Hospital repositories are dedicated to paintings and works on paper. In total, more than 4,000 works of art are now stored here.

Staff in the National Art Gallery's Collections and Preservation Unit carry out treatments such as cleaning, repairing tears and reintegrating images at the Main Paintings Preservation Laboratory.  Photo: National Gallery of ArtStaff in the National Art Gallery’s Collections and Preservation Unit carry out treatments such as cleaning, repairing tears and reintegrating images at the Main Paintings Preservation Laboratory. Photo: National Gallery of Art

The paintings depository, which houses works of various mediums – acrylic, oil, mixed media, batik, collage – is kept in sliding shelves.

As for the deposit of works of art on paper, these are watercolours, drawings and prints which are kept in a cold room in order to help prolong the life of these works.

Visitors can observe the collection of sculptures and other art objects displayed in this depository, through a glass tunnel. This viewing tunnel is the first of its kind in Malaysia.

Reference points

Musrizal shares that before the establishment of the art hospital, the team made visits and surveys with other conservation centers and art institutes in Malaysia and around the world, for references and ideas. .

Visits to the Opificio Delle Pietre Dure (OPD) and Cultural Heritage Science Open Source (CHSOS) in Italy proved to be quite successful, as was their stop at the Royal Abu Bakar Museum in Johor, the former Grand Palace of Johor before its transformation into a museum in 1982.

A collaboration with the Asia Pacific Tropical Climate Conservation Art Research Network (APTCCAN) helped cement the direction of the center.

The framing and conservation of the frames are carried out by trained framers in a fully equipped studio.  Photo: National Gallery of ArtThe framing and conservation of the frames are carried out by trained framers in a fully equipped studio. Photo: National Gallery of Art

In line with the gallery’s plans to engage with institutions outside of Kuala Lumpur and outlying areas to preserve regional and national art collections and organize programs with the community, there is talk of the possibility of doing l ‘Art Hospital an education center.

Training and refresher courses can be given to people interested in the conservation and preservation of art.

“The big picture here is to support the art ecosystem. We hope the facilities and services at the Art Hospital will have a positive impact and spark a brighter future for the community, especially among art lovers and enthusiasts. Having such a center also means there is a place where future restaurateurs can be employed and contribute to the industry.

“Conservation researchers will also have a place to research and share knowledge with us. Above all, we hope that we leave a legacy for future generations – to enhance the history and stories of this art collection and beyond,” says Musrizal.

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