42nd Annual Meeting – Textiles Session, May 30, “In Consideration of the Thangka” by Denise Migdail

Any talk with the word “thangka” in the title is one I’m sure to attend.  I’ve been hooked on these incredible graphic pieces since seeing one entitled “Protectress Riding a Zombie”.  Because who couldn’t like an art form that depicts riding a zombie?  So I was very happy to hear that Denise Migdail of San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum was giving a talk entitled, “In Consideration of the Thangka”.  The meat of the presentation revolved around the method the Asian Art Museum has developed to store and display the 154 thangkas in their collection, which, I have to say, is very clever.  But more about that later.
Denise began with a quick overview of what a thangka is: a Buddhist image used for meditation and/or teaching.  Although most are painted, they can also be appliquéd, embroidered or even woven.  Denise’s colleague, Jeff Durham, assistant curator of Himalayan Art, says that “thangka” translates to the highly technical term “flat thingy”. However, any conservator who has worked on one will tell you that’s an unfortunate misnomer.
The idea to revamp the storage system came with the 2000-2003 move of the museum from its former home in Golden Gate Park to its current home in the Civic Center.  The museum received an NEH storage grant and decided that they wanted to eschew their previous hanging storage for flat storage because a) low-binder paint b) fragile silks and c) wooden hanging dowels.  Although this project started before Denise’s arrival, she has been elemental in its development since she came on staff in 2006.  She found from experience that the beautiful glass cases installed in the new museum were incredibly hard to access.  Only one pane of glass could be moved at a time, allowing relatively small access points for objects that can get really, really big.  The staff realized that the boards the thangkas were stored on would aid significantly in getting them into the case.  So hey, why not keep them on the boards during display as well as storage?  Many different types of mounting boards were experimented with, including Tycore, (takes up a lot of space and is pretty expensive), Coroplast (sharp edges and flexes a lot) and blue board, (still flexes, especially at large sizes). D-Lite boards were ultimately deemed the best option.  Navy velveteen was originally selected as a show fabric for both its tooth and complementary color.  The thangkas themselves were variously tied, pinned, or stitched to the boards.  Eventually the decision was made to start using standard-sized boards because reusing is a great way to go green, and also to save money.  Unfortunately, this meant that piercing the boards by tying the thangkas to them customized them too much.  Since other rotations in the Asian’s galleries were currently being mounted with the aid of rare earth magnets, it was decided they would be a good solution for the thangkas too. Kimi Taira, employed at the Asian and writing an entry for the AIC objects wiki at this time (http://www.conservation-wiki.com/wiki/Magnet_Mounts), contributed much. The D-Lite boards translated well to magnet mounts, since they were rigid enough to support steel to attract the magnets. And since the gallery display was concurrently being updated, the navy velveteen was replaced with cotton flannel and a show-fabric surround.  When a thangka had a bottom dowel, L and U hooks held to the board via magnets offered support.
Denise finished up her presentation by talking about some specific treatments they did on certain thangkas.  The one I found most interesting was the recasting of a missing dowel knob.  They made a RTV (room temperature vulcanized rubber) mold using the remaining dowel and cast a new one in resin, which was then painted.  The end result was quite impressive.
At this time, the Asian Art Museum has three standard board sizes, with minor variations.  Many thanks to Denise Migdail for sharing this great green solution with us! Look at this link to the Asian’s website for pictures and a great video clip: http://www.asianart.org/collections/magnet-mounts