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The Art of Conservation at Balai
The Collection and Conservation Division works behind the scenes at the national gallery to preserve artwork for future generations.
Balai Seni Negara, also known as the National Visual Arts Gallery, has been housing the nation’s artwork since it was officiated in 1958 by Tunku Abdul Rahman. The current collection contains almost 5,000 pieces of art, some dating back as early as the 1800s.
For Amerrudin Ahmad, Balai (as it is known) is also his workplace. Amerrudin is Curator for the Collection and Conservation Division. He has been working with Balai to restore and conserve artwork for 20 years.
Amerrudin studied Fine Art at Universiti Teknologi MARA. Soon after joining Balai, he started learning about conservation, and later went on to study for a Masters Degree in the subject in the UK.
“To give all the effort and skills to make [a piece of art] relevant and prolong its life is a wonderful thing,” says Ameruddin, who also liaises with leading artists and art collectors.
Working behind the scenes at the gallery, the conservation team plays a crucial role in the preservation of Balai's ever expanding collection. Not all artworks reach the gallery in pristine condition. Deterioration of an artwork happens due to many factors like environment, materials used, improper handling and more.
Before moving to its current location, Balai’s collection was held in other buildings. This also contributed to some deterioration. “This is the only place we have a proper storage and conservation lab. That means that the artworks have been stored in a not-so-friendly environment for 40 years,” says Amerrudin.
Amerrudin now leads a team of around 20 members. His team are conservators with different areas of expertise, focusing on various materials like paint, paper, object, metals and so forth.
The team will start by carefully identifying the materials of an artwork. Different materials have a distinct reaction to the environment over a period of time. For example, organic materials such as textiles and paper are very sensitive to lighting and humidity.
“The challenge is that this is a modern art museum. The artwork is not macam biasa, time changes and we collect new contemporary art. It comes in unpredictable forms, like mixed media,” says Amerrudin. “There was an artist who did a collage on aluminium tins. The aluminium is old, made of found objects and already rusted. So how do we stop the rust? The thing is that paper has already been pasted on.”
Regardless, there are ethics to adhere to in conservation. “A conservator is not an artist,” stresses Amerrudin. “As a professional, you have to record everything. Apa you buat, you kena bagitau. The sort of material you used has to be reversible. You cannot make it permanent.”
If there is too much interference from the conservators, the works would no longer be deemed original. Another reason to resist a “permanent fix” is that there could be better restoration techniques available in the future.
While working with the artwork, the team is required to wear black coloured clothing – this is to help minimise any reflections from light in the room, which could damage the artworks.
Later this year, the public will be able to see some of this conservation work with their own eyes. Balai is due to open a new viewing gallery located in the basement area of the gallery in September. “We are providing the public with access. Sebelum ini, public tak boleh tengok kerja, you tengok gallery saja,” says Amerrudin.
Beyond the craft of conservation, Amerrudin is also consulted on the patterns of the gallery’s operations. His team needs to consider factors such as the budget and space allocation.
“There needs to be a strategy,” says Amerrudin. “How to store [the artworks], when to display and the capacity of the storage area. For example, how big or heavy is the artwork? How many years can the area contain the artwork?”
“Your collection is ever expanding so you need to estimate for ten years, 20 years ahead,” says Ameruddin. Other considerations include the cost of electricity: after all, storage rooms need to be kept at a certain temperature.
“We are not a for-profit corporation. We are non-profit and we are using taxpayers’ money,” Amerrudin points out.
All acquired artworks are part of the national collection and cannot be sold to generate income in any way. So what happens if the gallery wants to acquire a new artwork but does not have the necessary funds?
“There is a clause called ‘deaccessioning’,” explains Amerrudin. “Deaccessioning means if we have a lot of artworks and we feel like we need to acquire more, we can exchange with another museum.”
The conservation team has also been working on projects outside the gallery. For example, they have recently been restoring a wall mural in Sultan Suleiman Mosque, Klang. It was built in the 1930s and over the years, the original mural paintings were covered with limewash while some areas were cemented over.
Several public sculptures around town falls under Balai's upkeep too. However, sometimes a sculpture with national and historical significance belongs to another government body. Amerrrudin laments the incident in 2016 when the Puncak Purnama (Lunar Peaks) sculpture by Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal was demolished by DBKL, without Balai’s consultation.
While Malaysian art history is comparatively young, Balai’s collection is important because it denotes significant events in our socio-political history as well as marks the paradigms of changing art practices.
Although Amerrudin’s name may not hang on the wall alongside the artists, his job helps to secure these artworks for future generations.
“It’s a fantastic profession,” says Amerrudin. “There’s always something new to discover.”
By Lyn Ong
Photos by Teoh Eng Hooi
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