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The Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms - The Conservation Co-ordinator's View

The Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms combines examples of Sikh art from the collections at the V&A with loans from Europe, North America, India and Pakistan. During the preparations for this exhibition it has been necessary to look critically at information provided by our lenders, as it was not possible for a conservator to examine all of the objects prior to the loan being agreed. Are the requested objects in a fit state to travel to the V&A and to continue on to other venues? How do standards vary from one institution to another?

It had been hoped that one member of the conservation team would be able to visit the lenders in India and Pakistan to ascertain the condition of all of the objects and carry out some preliminary documentation on behalf of the V&A, prior to the proposed dates of shipping. A further advantage of this would have been to eliminate any objects which might be put at risk by transport to the UK and the USA. In the event, it has been necessary to rely solely on the information supplied to us by the lenders themselves and by observations made by the exhibitions curator who had seen many of the objects originally proposed on a previous visit to India and Pakistan.

Terms and conditions of loans are still being finalised with some of the institutions in India and Pakistan as I write this and discussions are underway which may result in a selected number of objects from this exhibition being sent to India in 2000 for an exhibition in New Delhi. A slightly smaller version of the exhibition held at the V&A will travel to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco in August 1999 with a possibility of extending the tour to include the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada.

This exhibition has been challenging due to the variety of objects selected, and due to the practical and political complexities involved in borrowing from institutions in India. The packing and crating of objects in India is being handled by Star Packaging, who have previously worked with travelling exhibitions mounted by the British Council. Initially the V&A had hoped to assist with the packing and crating of objects by providing both packing cases and technical assistance. In the event it has proved necessary to appoint an agent in India to help handle this side of things.

As the Conservation Co-ordinator I was especially concerned about the possibility of insect infestation arising from bringing material from another country which had not been examined by a conservator prior to shipment. It will be important to speedily identify and treat any pest infestation on the arrival of crates at the V&A without delaying the installation schedule. One category of material particularly at risk is textiles. These will be frozen for three days on arrival at the museum.

All categories of loan objects arriving in the museum, together with any packing materials will be inspected on arrival by a conservator for signs of infestation. The condition reports provided by the lenders will be used to check the condition of objects arriving at the museum in the usual way, these will be supplemented wherever necessary by our own condition report forms to give any additional information thought necessary for the tour.

Objects with slightly differing relative humidity (RH) and temperature requirements have necessitated the provision of microclimates. This is a result of the slightly differing environmental conditions specified by lending institutions. Art Sorb™ cassettes containing silica gel have been incorporated in three of the display cases, which have slightly varying RH requirements, and where the contents are particularly susceptible to changes in dimension as a result of fluctuations in RH.

Monitoring of the environmental conditions will be carried out during the exhibition. Data loggers placed at object level will act as a means of checking on the effectiveness of the climate control systems incorporated into the present air conditioning system.

Whatever the complexities presented by this unique exhibition, the high quality of the objects selected from the V&A collection together with those borrowed from other museums around the world, have made this exhibition a very exciting project to be involved with.