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Professional collaboration - the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India

The foundation stone of the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India (Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalya) was laid in 1905. It is situated in the centre of Mumbai in the district of Colaba known as the Crescent Site. The architect of the building, George Wittet, was selected after an open competition in 1909. It is a very fine building in the Indo Saracenic style, which combines Hindu and Saracenic architectural forms, at times incorporating some elements of western architecture (Figure 1). The museum houses a superb collection of miniature paintings and manuscripts, oil paintings, sculpture, textiles, bronzes and decorative arts.

Figure 1

Figure 1: The façade of the Prince of Wales Museum built in the Indo-Saracenic style. Photography by Mike Wheeler (click image for larger version)

I made an initial visit to the Prince of Wales Museum (POWM) in 2002 at the request of the Director, Dr Kalpana Dessai who had approached Mark Jones, Director of the V&A. Part of my remit was to examine a selection of important Indian and Persian manuscripts from the POWM collection and advise them concerning the development of a conservation studio, which is housed in the newly renovated Premchand wing of the museum. This also provides space for a temporary exhibition gallery, a new maritime gallery and a modern lecture theatre.

Partly as a result of this first visit in 2002, the POWM and the V&A entered into an official partnership in 2003 which acknowledged the important symbiotic relationship of the two institutions with a view to sharing both professional expertise and collections in the future. In 2003 Mr Sabyasachi Mukherjee (now acting Director) spent three months as an intern at the V&A in the Asian Department and in the Paper Conservation Section. As well as improving his knowledge of conservation, he attended lectures in the Museum and shadowed several senior members of the curatorial staff. During this time he worked in close liaison with the Head of Collections, Debby Swallow, who helped to arrange suitable contacts and visits.

The costs of my second visit in January 2005 were shared between the V&A and the Prince of Wales Museum, assisted by a grant from the Nehru Foundation. My remit was to follow up on some of the survey work I had carried out in December 2002 and to carry out the conservation of two of the most important manuscripts.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Anwari-l-Suhayli. Mughal manuscript, circa 1575. Fragments of this manuscript were glued down onto a paper backing after having been damaged by fire. Removal of these backing papers during conservation will allow the manuscript to be reassembled in the correct order. Photography by Mike Wheeler (click image for larger version)

The 'Anwari-I-Suhayli' manuscript (Figure 2), considered to be dated around 1575 is an important and highly attractive Mughal manuscript which is undoubtedly one of the jewels in the crown of the POWM collections. It is thought to have been commissioned by Akbar to give thanks for the birth of his first son and was produced at Fatehpur Sikri, near Agra. This manuscript had been damaged by fire in the 19th century when it was in the collection of Lord Elphinstone at Poona. It was given to the POWM in 1973. The manuscript was repaired in the early 20th century (possibly at Windsor Castle). During the restoration, many of the badly damaged folios were trimmed down and adhered to poor quality paper mounts which both damaged the paper of the original and obscured the text on the verso, which could not previously be read or studied.

Conservation treatment carried out in January 2005 included the removal of the backing papers to which the folios were adhered, consolidation of flaking pigments and inlaying the fragments into hand-made paper to allow them to be handled safely and mounted in such a way that the edges of the pictures could be clearly seen. About 12 fragments were treated during the visit, but it should be possible for staff at POWM to continue the work over the next 12 months. In the meanwhile, all of the folios have been photographed and scholars continue to study the sequence of the paintings, which will now be assisted by the portions of text which have been revealed by conservation. Several staff members took part in practical training sessions, worked under my supervision carrying out the necessary treatments and were shown methods of mounting and display which conform to present conservation standards.

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Figure 3: Verso of a folio of Gulsan-E-ishq. Deccani manuscript. Circa 1711. The dark brown areas indicate damage by copper pigments used on the recto. Photography by Mike Wheeler (click image for larger version)

The 'Gulshan-E-Ishq' (Figure 3) is a Deccani manuscript from Bidar dated 1711. This illustrated text in Persian had been rebound several times and was in a very bad condition as a result of the degradation of copper pigments which had caused extensive damage to the paper. This manuscript was so delicate that it was impossible to handle it, or even photograph the pages for study or reproduction. In conjunction with staff at POWM it was decided to disassemble the binding so that the pages could be repaired properly and displayed as individual folios. This drastic step was taken because the present binding was actively causing damage to the book, was preventing access and was not contemporary with the original manuscript. A small selection of folios from this manuscript were repaired with a combination of toned Japanese paper and original hand-made paper which had been used as end leaves. The individual folios were then re-mounted using conservation mounting board, imported from the UK. The mounting system chosen was very similar to that used at the V&A for the display of some early Mughal manuscripts with folios being attached into mounts with a hinge along the left-hand edge which allows the page to be turned in order to view images or texts on the verso.

A one-day workshop on handling paper and textiles was attended by all POWM staff and a handful of museum staff from institutions in Western India. This consisted of a lecture followed by a series of practical demonstrations and a lively discussion of present handling techniques and storage methods used at the POWM. A public lecture on 'The Materials, Techniques and Conservation of Indian Paintings' was delivered on 17 January 2005 in the new lecture theatre, attended by about 120 people including representatives from the national press.

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Figure 4: Detail of a Shahnama in the collection of the POWM. Photography by Mike Wheeler (click image for larger version)

In summary, the POWM is a very interesting and well managed museum. The collections of works of art on paper, textiles and sculpture are of a very high quality and gradually the museum is being upgraded and improved. The professional staff work extremely hard to ensure that the collection is well cared for and properly displayed within the limited funds which are available to them. It is hoped in the future that the POWM will provide both a temporary exhibition space of international standards, as well as a conservation studio for the treatment of a wide variety of materials including paper, paintings, textiles, metals and sculpture. It is the vision of the present director that the POWM will become a regional centre of excellence, and will provide training and mentoring to staff of other smaller museums throughout Western India. Previously, there was no dedicated specialist conservation facility in Mumbai which makes this new project especially timely.