How many people does it take to hang a painting?
We answered that during a ‘Behind-The-Scenes’ Conservator’s tour with the National Gallery of Singapore in conjunction with Singapore Art Week. Valerie managed to snag some spots for the both of us and I was really excited to see what was in store for us.
Note: Due to the sensitive nature of their work, no photography was allowed throughout the whole tour.
Shortly after gathering, our guide briefed that the tour was designed to track the journey from the container (maybe a little earlier) to the gallery. And while we expected the tour to start from the gallery itself, we found ourselves weaving through the back lanes before going through the entrance of the conservators’ work space.
Museums are built for many purposes – education and knowledge, research, archival, and as a physical space to store and preserve artefacts from our past. And while people who buy and display art in their homes look to have them last decades, museums and conservation centres work to have them last centuries.
While we went through the different storage and conservation rooms, a few major points were brought up.
Types of Conservation
Fundamentally, there are two kinds of conservation used in the industry – Interventive and Preventive. Both terms are true to their names:
Preventive Conservation: Many museums and galleries are engaging in this practice now in an attempt to prolong pieces and artefacts in their most original form for as long as possible.
Interventive Conservation: This is the kind of conservation we see in documentaries and can picture in our heads – this is where conservators touch up paintings and restore sculptures as they see fit.
One of the stories they spoke about during the tour was how this silk-backed painting had its silk back highly damaged. After much discussion and a decision, the senior conservator proceeded to slice off the paint (the painting itself) off the silk before quickly transferring it onto a new piece of silk.
Conservation Pointers & Necessities
Conservation is highly dependent on its surroundings and environment. Factors like humidity, temperature, and lighting can affect artwork over time. An interesting note we got was the reason behind the dim lights or the banning of flash photography in exhibitions:
There are many things the conservators can fix and do to attempt preventive conservation. However, constant photography flashes and beams will cause painting colours to fade – first slowly, gradually (where we cannot see the difference), then with extreme rapidity (all at once).
This is also the reason why many museums (especially places with older works) tend to be dim and cold – for preservation.
Challenges Faced By Our Conservators
The usual suspects come to play – pests (they have traps everywhere), organic oils (people touching or trying to touch exhibits), flash photography. What had our eyebrows lifted in pleasant surprise were the physical and environmental challenges the gallery and the team has come to learn.
One example was the challenge of transporting artwork into an area which was not designed or built to receive large vehicles and fragile materials on a regular basis. To respond to that, the gallery architect suggested a first – the first truck lift in Singapore.
And that was the gist of our ‘Behind-The-Scenes’ tour with the National Gallery of Singapore and the Singapore Art Week. It was interesting, insightful, and I believe this was probably just a scrape of varnish on an aged painting. Regardless, we had fun and Val got quite a few tips on preserving some of the street art she got overseas.
So the answer we got to the first question? 10 – the curator, the conservators, the lighting technicians, the archivist, and many other technicians needed to ensure that the painting is up safely.
The National Gallery of Singapore is located at 1 St. Andrew’s Road, #01-01, Singapore 178957. You can find out more about them here. You can also find out more about Singapore Art Week and their programmes here.