Training in Conservation at the Historic Spice Route Port of Kerala–Muziris

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Group photo of the workshop organisers and participants. © Muziris Projects Limited, photo by Sarath Jayan.

By Tanushree Gupta and Gabriela Krist

Focused on safeguarding cultural heritage, the Austrian and Indian governments once again combined their professional expertise in order to understand the challenges faced by the archaeological sites and objects in the tropical climate zone of Kerala, India, especially after the flooding in 2018. Emphasis has been put on finding pragmatic and sustainable solutions to ensure that the objects will survive into the future while maintaining their present condition as much as possible. From 4-6 March 2020, a team of conservators from the Institute of Conservation, University of Applied Arts Vienna conducted the workshop “Preventive Conservation and First-Aid for Archaeological Collections” at the Muziris Projects Limited, Ministry of Tourism, Government of Kerala, in Kochi. As part of the workshop, the archaeological collections belonging to Muziris—the historic Spice Route port of Kerala—were examined, and strategies to improve the current conditions were developed. To ensure that the standards of collection care were in place and in practice, the in-service professionals, researchers and students received intensive training on relevant topics.

Muziris Projects Limited, a state government company incorporated on 24 March 2014, was named after the famous spice route port of Kerala called Muziris. Starting in 3000 BC, Muziris was an indispensable center for trade until this hub dropped off the map due to flooding and earthquakes in the year 1341. The government has recently initiated the Muziris Heritage Project (https://www.muzirisheritage.org/) to provide an educational resource about the history, cultural distinctiveness and diversity in Muziris. The Project, in addition to conserving the heritage sites of Muziris, will take steps to preserve 21 museums and other significant landmarks in Kerala. A dedicated team of archaeologists and conservators is involved in the excavation process; they are methodologically joining the dots to trace the history of this region. The excavated objects have been placed in existing storage units, while more storage buildings are under construction to ensure safe and sufficient facilities for the growing number of objects.

Having been associated with collection care projects in Kerala since 2016, the Institute of Conservation, University of Applied Arts Vienna has been working with Napier Museum to understand the acclimatisation behaviour and requirements of objects in the local climate. Together they are exploring and testing locally available conservation and storage materials and learning from local traditions, thereby providing information on collection care with consideration for what is actually possible, affordable and sustainable. The modules of this workshop on preventive conservation for archaeological collections were based on the same principles.

At the onset, the workshop participants were introduced to the systematic approach to analysing an object and the structured procedure for writing a condition report. In addition, methods for the proper handling of objects, along with essentials on health and safety measures, were presented. Prior to putting this knowledge into practical use, the participants were given a detailed account on the excavations and types of objects that have been unearthed within the Muziris Heritage Project, in collaboration with Kerala Council for Historical Research at Kottappuram Fort and Pattanam Fort—the two major archaeological sites within this project.

The following day each participant was provided with a set of objects, which included items such as storage jars, glass beads, stone beads, utilitarian objects made of stone, copper and iron, typical pottery, coins, etc., for which they carried out condition reports. The participants then presented their cases, and discussions followed. The multidisciplinary team evidently brought detailed notes on history, techniques, technology, materials, deterioration and conservation of the given objects while carefully following the guidelines given during the lectures from the previous day. The next task was to evaluate a storage centre for the archaeological objects. This first required some background information in the form of in-depth lectures on preventive conservation, whereby questions on the critical analysis of storage were identified as participants worked in groups on different topics including building assessment, climate, light, pests and packing materials.

The last day of the workshop included presentations by each group on their respective topics with clear recommendations on areas that stand in need of improvement and research. In conclusion, the workshop emphasised that objects need specific attention immediately after excavation in order to assess condition—wet or dry—and proper storage. Gabriela Krist (Institute of Conservation, University of Applied Art Vienna) and M. Velayudhan Nair (Muziris Projects Limited, Ministry of Tourism, Government of Kerala), chiefs of Austria-India collaboration projects in the field of conservation of cultural heritage, emphasised that the implementation of appropriate first-aid measures at the time of excavation is essential in ensuring the long-term stability of archaeological objects. Preventive conservation training for archaeological collections must include knowledge regarding the immediate decisions that a conservator must make at the time of excavation. Hence, this workshop at the Muziris Projects Limited included first-aid for archaeological collections along with preventive conservation. This topic was dealt with in detail by Kathrin Schmidt, a specialist in the conservation of archaeological collections at the University of Applied Arts Vienna. Participants found similarities and differences between the Austrian and Indian systems, not only in the work procedures, but also in associated laws. The workshop was a success, empowering the participants with knowledge and a better set of standards for caring for archaeological collections, as well as enriching both the Austrian and Indian organising teams, having had the opportunity to learn from each other’s experiences.

Graced by words of encouragement from the Honourable Ambassador of Austria to India Brigitte Öppinger-Walchshofer, the inauguration of this workshop marked the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the Institute of Conservation, University of Applied Arts Vienna, and the Muziris Projects Limited, Ministry of Tourism, Government of Kerala. This MoU aims to foster the exchange of knowledge among in-service professionals, researchers and students; to facilitate hands-on exercises; and to develop research projects. Joining forces to save world heritage together, the Austrian Embassy New Delhi, Austrian Cultural Forum New Delhi, Indian Embassy Vienna, and Eurasia Pacific Uninet stood together with the Institute of Conservation, University of Applied Arts Vienna, Austria and the Muziris Projects Limited, Ministry of Tourism, Government of Kerala, India, in this endeavour.

“Preventive Conservation and First-Aid for Archaeological Collections” is the first initiative within the Preservation of Archaeological Heritage in Kerala project. The next training workshop is planned for February 2021 and will focus on hands-on conservation of ceramic objects.

AUTHOR BYLINES

Tanushree Gupta completed her doctoral studies in art conservation in 2016 from National Museum Institute, New Delhi, where she obtained her master’s degree as well in 2010. After three PhD internships at the Institute of Conservation, University of Applied Arts Vienna, Tanushree has become part of their team and focusses on collection care practices and research.

Gabriela Krist has been a professor at the Institute of Conservation, University of Applied Arts Vienna since 1999. She studied conservation at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, as well as art history and archaeology in Vienna and Salzburg. For many years she worked for ICCROM in Rome and at the Austrian Federal Office for the Care of Monuments (Bundesdenkmalamt).

(see the full article in the 2020 August-September "News in Conservation" Issue 79, p. 42-45)

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Focused on safeguarding cultural heritage, the Austrian and Indian governments once again combined their professional expertise in order to understand the challenges faced by the archaeological sites and objects in the tropical climate zone of Kerala, India, especially after the flooding in 2018.
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