ECPN Interviews: East Asian Art Conservation

To promote awareness and a clearer understanding of different pathways into specializations that require particular training, the Emerging Conservation Professional Network (ECPN) is conducting a series of interviews with conservators in these specialties.  We’ve asked our interviewees to share some thoughts about their career paths, which we hope will inspire new conservators and provide valuable insight into these areas of our professional field.  This post is continuing our series on East Asian Art Conservation, where we have posts from Sara Ribbans and Yi-Hsia Hsiao.

This post is continuing our series on East Asian Art Conservation with Hsin-Chen Tsai, an Associate Conservator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in the Asian Conservation Studio. In 2008, she graduated from National Tainan University of Arts in Taiwan, where she specialized in Asian paintings conservation.  She received a BFA degree in Art Education with a thesis in Art Education from the Department of Art at the National Changhua University of Education.

Hsin-Chen will be presenting at the upcoming 45th AIC Annual Meeting in Chicago on the treatment of the Korean Buddhist Sutra that she mentions here– we invite you to hear more at her presentation!

ECPN: Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
Hsin-Chen Tsai (HT): I am Hsin-Chen Tsai, an Associate Conservator of Chinese Painting in Asian Conservation at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA). I work under Jing Gao, the Cornelius Van der Starr Conservator of Chinese Paintings, and sometimes assist other staff in the studio. Besides performing treatments, I also help with reporting, installation, and handling of collections for visitors.

ECPN: How were you first introduced to conservation, and why did you decide to pursue conservation?
HT: As I recall, I always had a strong interest in arts and crafts in school. In college, I studied a variety of different media such as watercolor, printing, drawing, and sculpture. One of my favorite classes was the History of Art Materials. In this class, I learned a lot about how different media are made, and this is where I was first introduced to Chinese mounting techniques. The professor showed us how to wash out starch from flour dough and cook it into paste, how to line an ink painting, how to flatten it on a wall; all of it was amazing to me.  After I graduated, I decided to apply for the Asian painting conservation program at Tainan National University of Arts (TNNUA) in Taiwan.

Hsin-Chen Tsai, Associate Conservator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Asian Conservation Studio [Photo: Hsin-Chen Tsai]
 ECPN: Of all specializations, what contributed to your decision to follow Chinese art conservation?
HT: I love History and Craft Art. It always amazes me to know what people in the past thought about things, and you realize that people throughout history still retain the same values about ways of life as people today. The materials and recourse they used might be different from the ones we use today, but the ideas of improving something in daily life are the same. Looking at Asian mountings-whether it is Japanese, Chinese or Tibetan style-you can find the aesthetics of those people. You also can see that the mounting functions as protection, display, and storage. To consider what the people of the past were thinking and developing for Asian mountings is amazing to me. I also find it very satisfying when finishing a mounting for a painting.  Of course, Chinese art conservation is not just about the mounting, but a passion for history and the hands-on work contributed to my decision to be a Chinese painting conservator.

ECPN: What has been your training pathway? Please list any universities, apprenticeships, technical experience, and any related jobs or hobbies.
HT: Before I entered the conservation field, I majored in Art Education at college and became an art teacher at a high school for one year.  I feel comfortable speaking in public and love to bring something new to people.  When giving presentations, I see myself as a storyteller, and although now I have to use English to do the public speaking (which is really challenging for me), I still love to share what I find with other people and hope this information will be helpful for some conservators.

Then, I got into the conservation program at TNNUA, which included general and practical courses. My favorites were the general courses on conservation theory and materials, but also those specific to Asian painting such as mounting, painting techniques, and pigments.  We also have practical courses. Ms. Yuan-Feng Chang, Associate Professor in the TNNUA and current Head of the Research Center for Conservation of Cultural Relics (affiliated with the National Taiwan Normal University in Taipei), obtained projects for students to treat under her supervision. Depending on the project and type of work involved, I was able to work by myself or with other students as a team. By working on these projects, students applied what they learned from the general courses such as examination and documentation, photography, media identification, treatments, mounting and storage plan design.

Besides taking courses, we had to practice mounting techniques in our spare time. The traditional skills for Chinese mounting are not something you learn overnight. It really takes a lot of practice, and then, you might be able to attempt it. We all took notes and photos when our professor, Mr. Sheng-ban Lin from the National Palace Museum in Taipei, did demonstrations. However, there is no way you can record the touch or the effort  that the professor was using in certain tasks. Therefore, the students would always be working in the studio and practicing different steps of the mounting technique.

During the third year of the graduate program (when a four- to six-month internship is required), I interned at the Asian Paintings conservation studio at the National Palace Museum in Taipei, the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, and the MFA, Boston. During this internship experience, I refined my skills in Chinese painting conservation and furthered my understanding of how the staff from different departments work together as a team to support the programming in the museum.

Hsin-Chen painting a thangka in Lhasa. [Photo: Hsin-Chen Tsai]
However, learning or training is not only about getting the skills but also about immersing in the culture.  To learn the techniques of making Thangka, I traveled to Lhasa in Tibet with my senior, Yi-Hsia Hsiao (Assistant Conservator of Chinese Paintings at the Cleveland Museum of Art), to study from a master, Tseten Namgyal, for a week in 2006. We attended Mr. Tseten‘s studio at the Barkhor where we sat on a Tibetan futon and painted with his students. I remember they enjoyed singing, and loved to sing together! The youngest student (an eleven or twelve-year old boy) kept our cup filled with delicious Tibetan milk tea. I enjoyed the art, music, and wonderful aroma there. That was such a memorable trip.

After graduating in 2008, I started as a Mellon Fellow in the Asian Conservation Studio at the MFA, Boston. During my fellowship, I worked broadly in each studio’s specialty including general conservation operations. In addition to routine works, I was encouraged to do my own research projects and publishing.  When I reflect on my fellowship, it seems as if a bridge connecting the “student me” and the “conservator me” had been built. Without this training and experience, it would have been more difficult for a young conservator who just graduated to understand how to balance the theories learned in school and the practical work in a museum. Many thanks to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for helping a young conservator like me  make my dream possible.

ECPN: Are there any particular skills that you feel are important or unique to your discipline?
HT: Beyond what I’ve already mentioned about traditional skill and practice, independent thinking is also very important in this field. The traditional mounting techniques are gems of wisdom developed over thousands of years; the steps and materials have their own reason to exist.  However, it is also important for us to distinguish what we could still follow and what we should think twice about.  For example, The Books of Mounting*,  which was written in the 17th Century, explains the formats, processes, materials, and principles of mounting/restoration for Chinese paintings. One paragraph is about the right season for doing the restoration work:

The best time is in fall when it is already cool and yet not cold. The period before the rainy season is also good. The wintertime is too dry and the summertime is too muggy. The fall time is better than the springtime and the springtime is better than the wintertime and summertime. In summer, you should be careful of mold. In winter, you should be careful of (artwork) freezing.” (Gulik 310)

If we review this seasonal idea with the modern conservation approach, it correlates with the ideal conditions (i.e. RH 50% and 70° F) to preserve Chinese paintings on paper or silk. However, some traditions in Chinese restoration that have been recorded in the literature might not fit in today’s conservation concept – like additives in paste mixtures. I always tell myself I should keep practicing and respect tradition while always being open to new techniques and materials.

ECPN: What are some of your current projects, research, or interests?
HT: I just finished the treatment of a Korean Buddhist sutra with my colleague Tanya Uyeda, Associate Conservator of Japanese painting at the MFA. This Korean Buddhist sutra was written on a ten-leaf accordion book. There were losses, tears, and dents, but many of these damages appeared to result from its function as a personal religious item. For example, there is an embossed circular impression, likely from a vessel of some sort, and there are crude repairs and substantial soiling from excessive handling. Due to the poor condition of the sutra, minor treatment was not enough to address these problems with satisfactory results, so we had to design a major treatment to dissemble and mount the sutra back to the original format. It is a good example of how we combined traditional techniques with new approaches to overcome several challenges.

ECPN: In your opinion, what is an important research area or need in your specialization?
HT: In the field of Chinese painting conservation, there are still a lot of interesting topics that have yet to be researched, particularly with scientific analysis. Techniques and materials that are mentioned in the literature have not been looked into in a scientific way. For example, the hard paste we used in the process of joining silk onto the painting sometimes dries too fast, which causes the joint areas to shrink too much and makes it difficult to perform the subsequent steps. Adding a little bit of honey makes the paste dry slower and also makes the joint areas more relaxed. This step has been recorded in the literature, but what is the mechanism behind this result? How does the paste with honey deteriorate over time?

Even though traditional Chinese mounting technique has been developed for thousands of years, it is like an unfolding mystery for both western and Asian conservators. On the Asian side, they have practiced for a long time. On the western side, they have built the modern concept and theory. I am happy to work between these two sides and have been curious to learn as much as I can, which motivates me to keep doing research.  I will keep sharing my experiences and knowledge of traditional Chinese painting conservation/mounting techniques, and I will continue to compare modern conservation concepts and traditional practice in Chinese painting conservation.

The other thing I think we need in the Chinese painting conservation field is unifying the English terms. We are using terms for reporting but still don’t have standardized terms to refer to certain mounting procedures or components created in the process.  We should create some kind of Chinese art conservation dictionary that defines the mounting techniques and materials.

Hsin-Chen toning papers for a lining.

ECPN: Do you have any advice for prospective emerging conservators who would like to pursue this specialization?
HT: Start now. Practice now. There are different ways to pursue it, either studying in the Conservation program in Taiwan or China and specializing in Chinese painting conservation, or working under a mounting master in his/her studio with an open mind. In Taiwan, there are two conservation programs that have Asian Painting mounting courses: a graduate program at the Tainan National University of Arts with the Graduate Institute of Conservation of Cultural Relics and Museology and an undergraduate program at the National Yunlin University of Science with the Department of Cultural Heritage Conservation. Also, there are a couple of Conservation Centers with Asian painting conservation divisions. The Research Center for Conservation of Cultural Relics at the National Taiwan Normal University College of Arts and Cheng-Shiu University Conservation Center offer training for interns.

*Reference: The Book of Mounting and the Practice of Mounting Chinese Painting and Calligraphy by Chou Chia-chou
English translation and commentary:  Van Gulik, R.H. 1958. “Chapter IV: The Book of Mounting” in Chinese Pictorial Art as Viewed by the Connoisseur: Notes on the Means and Methods of Traditional Chinese Conoisseurship of Pictoral Art, Based upon a Study of the Art of Mounting Scrolls in China and Japan. Rome: Instituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente, 283-335.