April 1994 Issue 11
ICCROM - Japanese paper conservation course 1993: an introduction to the ancient skills of scroll mounting for the modern conservator
Today techniques derived from the Japanese scroll mounting tradition are the foundation of many of the treatments practised in paper conservation studios in the West. The tradition of scroll mounting has a continuous history of nearly a thousand years and rests on many of the principles dear to the heart of the modern conservator, such as reversibility and respect for the nature of materials.
Conservators outside Japan owe a debt of gratitude to Mr Katsuhiko Masuda, Head of the Paper & Textiles Section of the Tokyo National Research Institute of Cultural Properties, for his dedication to teaching these techniques for many years. Under the auspices of ICCROM1 , he has taught many short courses on Japanese paper conservation in different European cities over the past twenty years. Mr Masuda trained as a traditional mounter and has long experience of teaching Westerners, has great enthusiasm and stamina and a deep understanding of methods and materials, from the most ancient to the very latest developments. An opportunity to study with Mr Masuda in Japan is not one to be missed and so I did not hesitate to apply to attend the 2nd ICCROM International Japanese Paper Conservation Course be held in Kyoto and Tokyo last autumn.
A Japanese mounter knows and understands his tools and materials and how to use them in a way that those who have undertaken the requisite ten years of training in a Japanese studio can. The traditional combination of textiles and paper in a hanging scroll requires a thorough understanding on the part of the mounter of the unique physical behaviour of these materials in relation to each other. The structure of the course was based on two projects undertaken simultaneously, in which all the basic techniques could be demonstrated and practised - making a small hanging scroll and constructing a Karibari, or Japanese drying board. We learned which were the proper tools to use for each task, how to handle them and care for them. The impression I had been given of there being one way of doing things was immediately dispersed by our tutors when each demonstrated a slightly different method according to the city in which he trained - what we came to call Kyoto-style or Tokyo-style. We gradually became aware of permutations within each studio in the same city. Like eating exotic food in one's own country, it is not until one travels that all the nuances of the different dishes become apparent.
At the V&A the relatively stable condition of the Far Eastern Collection means that, while not requiring continuous care and attention from Paper Conservation, from time to time an object going on display or simply identified as requiring treatment will need intervention by a specialist. It is at this point that the combined experience in Japanese techniques gained over the years by members of our studio comes into its own. Currently, Pauline Webber and I are undertaking the remounting of an important 18th century Japanese handscroll. So the good fortune of having been selected to attend this course could not have come at a better time.
In addition to Oriental artefacts, objects in our collections have benefited from the use of Japanese methods and materials. Recently, Pauline and Marion Kite, Senior Conservator in Textile Conservation, have collaborated on the treatment of an English 17th century embroidered picture using Japanese lining techniques.
This was the second year that the course was held in Japan and there were many advantages to this. The practical course itself was perhaps similar to the one which Mr Masuda had taught abroad, but by being held on the premises of the Conservation Centre at the Kyoto National Museum, the many scroll mounting studios could offer technical and logistical support (such as supplying us with prepared wheat starch paste every morning, thus saving us hours of cooking time). Perhaps more important was the unique opportunity to put our daily tasks into context; first by studying the national collections of scrolls, screens, and sliding doors in the company of conservators and curators and also by seeing conservation in practice in the Museum's many scroll mounting studios. Study tours were also made to the ancient capital, Nara, and to Yoshino, an important papermaking centre in Nara prefecture.
A major motivation behind setting up the course seems to have been a general concern on the part of the Japanese that their cultural heritage, much of which today lies outside Japan, should be looked after properly. In order to do this it is felt that conservators and curators in the West need to have a better understanding and appreciation of the original cultural context of the works of art for which they are responsible. A lack of awareness has been blamed for inappropriate treatment of Japanese works of art in the West, including the removal of traditional mounts from paintings on paper and silk in order to frame them, as well as displaying objects in conditions unsympathetic to their original purpose and design.
The course was funded by the Japanese Government and other cultural agencies and was hosted by two National museums in Kyoto and Tokyo. It may seem strange to us that a country in which the training of a mounter of hanging scrolls takes a minimum of 10 years, would sponsor a short course such as this one. I think there are a number of reasons for this; to introduce traditional skills, to instil an appreciation for the level of skill and experience required for high quality conservation work, and to give conservators from other countries a brief experience of working in Japan, a chance to make contacts and perhaps arrange to return to study for a longer time in the mounting studio.
There were many unanticipated bonuses on this trip; spending time among people who valued and respected conservation, in a country where the smaller industries that make the continuing high level of craftsmanship in scroll mounting possible, such as the making of brushes, knives, paper and storage boxes, are all supported by the national government and where the most respected craftsmen working with traditional materials and methods are designated Living National Treasures and are thus ensured government support. I was left with a lasting impression by visiting many of the Buddhist temples in Kyoto, where the tradition of creating beautiful surroundings for hundreds of years can still be experienced and where and active policy of preservation is evident. This continuity may help to give conservation in Japan its special dignity.
One of the most interesting aspects of the course was the presence of conservators from so many different countries, backgrounds, training, studios and institutions. Two afternoons were spent listening to participants' presentations of their work. It was heartening to see that many of us were attempting to overcome the same problems, while working in very different contexts. We all agreed that coming to Japan had given each of us a very different perspective from which to view our own work. I was left with a sense of how lucky I was to be working within the supportive environment that exists at the V&A.
I would like to acknowledge with gratitude the financial assistance given to me to attend this course by The Conservation Unit of the Museums & Galleries Commission and by the Training Section of the V&A.
1. International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and the Restoration of Cultural Property; part of UNESCO and described as an autonomous, scientific, inter-governmental organisation based in Rome.