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


At the Art Hospital, the public can watch how the National Art Gallery staff repair and restore masterpieces and artworks from the national collection. Photo: National Art Gallery

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

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

What made much less fanfare in the weeks that came after, was the National Art Gallery’s new National Art Repository and Conservation Centre, which is slowly coming into its own as a public attraction.

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

It is open on weekdays only, from 10am to 5pm.

Housed within the National Art Gallery, this Art Hospital facility features conservation laboratories for the treatment of painting and framing; a photography and technical examination room; and repositories for paper artwork, sculptures and other art objects.

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

The main lab that is used for painting conservation is equipped with instruments like polarised light microscopes and X-ray fluorescence for detailed conservation work. Treatments such as cleaning, tear repair, image reintegration and lining are carried out here by the staff of the National Art Gallery’s collection and conservation unit.

In the photography studio and technical examination room, artworks are examined, analysed and documented with the help of a variety of tools and techniques to investigate features of the artwork that are not detectable in visible light. This allows the conservation unit to evaluate the present condition of a painting as well as its original construction.

For instance, infrared cameras can provide valuable information on the inner structure of the painting, such as whether the artist sketched with carbon-based compounds (say, graphite or charcoal) before paint application.

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

The conservation team unit employs various techniques in their work at the collection study room, such as polarised light microscopy to analysis fibre and pigment on art materials such as paper. Photo: National Art GalleryThe conservation team unit employs various techniques in their work at the collection study room, such as polarised light microscopy to analysis fibre and pigment on art materials such as paper. Photo: National Art Gallery

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

If all these sound terribly technical, it is because it is. An art conservator should have a combination of skills – chemistry, artistic flair and scientific know-how.

An accessible facility

Having said that, the National Art Gallery’s collection and conservation section curator Musrizal Mat Isa is very much aware of the importance of making this facility accessible to the public and stresses that education is one of the Art Hospital’s main goals.

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

The public can view the collection of sculptures and artworks at the Art Hospital through a ‘glass tunnel’. Photo: National Art GalleryThe public can view the collection of sculptures and artworks at the Art Hospital through a ‘glass tunnel’. Photo: National Art Gallery

“In the long-run, we hope to contribute to the inculcation of a higher awareness, understanding and appreciation of art among the broader 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 are planning to have frequent demonstrations and workshops. We have a collection study room where visitors can observe the work we do behind the scenes. This gives them a chance to watch it ‘live’ to experience it for themselves. Guided tours are in the pipeline too, to make your visit to the Art Hospital a memorable and informative one,” says Musrizal.

The collection study space he is referring to is used for collection research and consultancy services. Demonstrations of conservation work are carried out here, including the finishing touches. It occupies an area of over 300sq m.

The other repositories at the Art Hospital are dedicated to paintings and artworks on paper. In total, there are more than 4,000 artworks that are now in storage here.

The staff of the National Art Gallery’s collection and conservation unit carry out treatments such as cleaning, tear repair and image reintegration at the painting conservation main lab. Photo: National Art GalleryThe staff of the National Art Gallery’s collection and conservation unit carry out treatments such as cleaning, tear repair and image reintegration at the painting conservation main lab. Photo: National Art Gallery

The painting repository, which houses work in various mediums – acrylic, oil, mixed media, batik, collage – are kept in sliding shelves.

As for the artworks on paper repository, these include watercolours, drawings and prints which are kept in a cold storage room in order to help extend the lifetime of these pieces.

Visitors are able observe the collection of sculptures and other art objects displayed in this repository, through a glass tunnel. This observation tunnel is the first of its kind in Malaysia.

Reference points

Musrizal shares that prior to the setting up of the Art Hospital, the team conducted visits and surveys with other conservation centres and arts institutes in Malaysia and around the world, for references and ideas.

Visits to the Opificio Delle Pietre Dure (OPD) and the Cultural Heritage Science Open Source (CHSOS) in Italy proved rather fruitful, as did their stop at The Royal Abu Bakar Museum in Johor, the former Grand Palace of Johor before it was turned into a museum in 1982.

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

Framing and the conservation of frames are done by trained framers in a fully-equipped studio. Photo: National Art GalleryFraming and the conservation of frames are done by trained framers in a fully-equipped studio. Photo: National Art Gallery

In line with the gallery’s plans to engage with institutions outside of Kuala Lumpur and the outskirt areas to preserve regional and state art collections and hold programmes with the community, there is talk about the possibility of making the Art Hospital into an education centre.

Training and upskilling courses can be provided to those interested in art conservation and preservation.

“The big picture here is sustaining the art ecosystem. We hope that the Art Hospital facilities and services will give a positive impact and spark a more hopeful future for the community, especially among art lovers and enthusiasts. Having such a centre also means there is a place where future conservators can be employed and contribute to the industry.

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

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