Walking through a museum, amidst the carefully-lit, thoughtfully-labelled exhibits, it is easy to overlook the work behind the scenes. Many hours are invested by a small army of people, sifting through, researching, cleaning, cataloguing and finally exhibiting objet d’art in ways that appeal to diverse audiences.

This little-appreciated world of museum professionals, curators and conservators is the subject of a series of exhibitions hosted by the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai. The first exhibition in 2016 focused on the principles of conservation. The second, currently on display, demonstrates those principles in action.

Titled Conserving the Collection: The Practice of Conservation, the present exhibition aims to familiarise visitors with art conservation techniques by showcasing heritage objects and the technology used to diagnose them, clean them, fix them and, if required, rebuild them.

As it shows, a conservator’s arsenal includes a variety of tools ranging from soft cloths and brushes to the appropriate chemicals and even high-tech gadgets, such as infra-red cameras and lasers. These are used on objects – sometimes centuries or millennia old – made in stone, wood, textiles, ivory, metal and organic materials (like natural history specimens) to retain their delicate shapes, forms and colours.

The transformation is wonderful to behold: visitors can look at how battered objects have been restored to their original glory. Anupam Sah, the head of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya Conservation Lab and renowned conservation expert, explained how, among other things, they painstakingly fixed the chainmail of Humayun’s helmet, threading together hundreds of little iron loops, took apart and reassembled a Vishnu statue so that it would stand properly, and sewed back the frayed zari of a royal Mughal jacket.

These are just some instances from the several Sah has tackled over his career. A Mumbai-based conservation expert who hails from Nainital, Sah is the founder of the non-profit organisation Himalayan Society for Heritage and Art Conservation. He has been awarded the Sanskriti Award and the title of the Knight of the Order of the Star of Italy in 2016 for his efforts in this space. He is currently setting up conservation training centres in various parts of India.

In a wide-ranging conversation with Scroll.in, Sah spoke about the state of conservation in Indian museums, the problems and their possible solutions.

Helmet with chain mail Steel Domascene gold metal, dated A.H 961 = 1553 CE, Acc No. 55.11 E 20.0 x 19.2 cm. This helmet with chain mail has been ascribed to the Mughal Emperor Humayun and completes the set comprising of forearm armour and a breastplate. Grease, dirt and grime had accumulated on the surface, giving it a dark and dull appearance. This was effectively cleaned using solvents. Each vertical element of the chain mail was supported by a very thin polyester fibre threaded through the links. This took away the strain from the mail that was then carefully re-attached to the helmet.

On a scale of 1 to 10, what is the state of conservation practices in Indian museums?
Where the facilities for conservation properly exist, they do so at level six or seven maybe. And where they don’t, it’s an abysmal two. It wouldn’t be fair to draw an aggregate like this. But the good thing is that the field is beginning to get a fair amount of funding – both from public and private bodies. Now, ironically, the problem is in spending this money. There aren’t enough trained people.

The infusion of funds is heartening news. But what are we still doing wrong?
The tendering process. This process of awarding of [conservation] contracts by the government through tenders is not just cumbersome, but sometimes, downright wrong. Projects often go to contractors, who have no idea what conservation entails. They end up hiring sub-consultants who may do more damage than good. Conservation is serious business and ought to be done only by thorough professionals.

'Phryne in Eleusis' by Emanuel Oberhauser (1854-1919), Oil on canvas Austrian, Acc No. 33.42 80.5 x 151.5 cm, Sir DJ Tata Collection. This copy by Emmanuel Oberhauser is of a painting at St Petersburg titled 'Phryne at Poseidonia in Eleusis' by the Polish artist Henryk Hektor Siemiradzki. It depicts the very beautiful courtesan Phryne as she disrobes to step into the sea as a test of her innocence. The brittle and flaking paint layer was consolidated using a heat-melt synthetic adhesive that was introduced into all the cracks. The fragile canvas was lined under suction. Darkened varnish was removed and losses were filled and retouched.

Could you name some of these contemporary conservation professionals?
Among the seasoned crop are Sanjay Dhar and Giri Kumar, Nilabh Sinha of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, Achal Pandya at Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, Satish Pande at National Museum Institute, Priya Khanna and Saloni Ghuwalewala, both private conservators, as well as Maninder Gill and Sreekumar who work as a team.

What is the paradigm shift you hope for?
I would immediately change the hiring protocols for conservationists in museums – especially public ones. We’re still following the colonial template, where a conservationist needs to have only a science degree. Granted, some knowledge of chemistry is needed, but today art conservation is a specialised and trans-disciplinary subject in itself, [for which] students are also given science training and so much more. If an institution like the National Museum in Delhi took that first step and started hiring trained art conservators for official posts, it would set the best kind of example and change the game across the country.

Tell us about some of the archaic practices you’ve come across.
There are both kinds – solutions that work and those that don’t. Take, for example, mistris (masons) wanting to mix urad dal or paneer in lime plasters and mortars used for architectural projects. This is a millennia-old practice. If you ask them why, they don’t always know. But it actually works, because these components help in strengthening the lime. On the other hand, simply wrapping manuscripts in red or yellow-coloured cloth, or placing peacock feathers or snake slough in the pages might not forever protect them from bugs, as it is believed. Yes, if the cloth has been tinted yellow due to haritala, or orpiment, an arsenic compound, then it’s another matter. But we must also respect these old practices – they too are part of our intangible heritage, so we preserve them too.

The flip side of wanting to preserve everything, though, seems to be causing a serious problem in museums not just in India but the world over: storage. What are your views on delisting of art objects?
Preservation is an added responsibility and is the flip side of enhancing the collection – so it becomes an ethical issue. No curator wants to take the onus of destroying an object – for that is what delisting is commonly understood to be. It’s a hard decision to take because you never know what a historical object’s worth truly is and who might question it.

Visitors at the exhibition.

Even so, there are objects that are beyond redemption and must be destroyed – sometimes in the interest of other objects in the collection. For example, an object that is riddled with too many bugs or fungi is a threat. But in the case of objects of lesser importance, delisting should include options [such as] donating or even giving on long-term loans. For private collections, auctioning is also a viable option. A lead coin that is turning to powder may be given to students [who are] learning about the composition of such coins in conservation labs, a statue may be loaned off to another museum, or a painting sold to an enthusiastic new collector or institution. It’s a win for everyone.

In your worst nightmare, if all objects at the CSMVS are going to get destroyed and you can save just three things, what would they be?
This is heretical, but since you insist, I would pick one natural history specimen – there is a lovely taxidermied mountain goat in our collection. I’d then pick up the Anwar-i-Suhaili manuscript, a 16th-century exquisitely-illustrated Persian translation of the Panchatantra, commissioned by emperor Akbar; and one 10th-century basalt stone sculpture of Durga from Karnataka – so very powerful and feminine with a most hypnotic gaze.

Conserving the Collection: The Practice of Conservation is on view at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Mumbai, till May 15.

All photos courtesy the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya.