In heritage management, focusing on the tangible elements is generally the first step. This is due to their comparative visibility, to well-developed restoration methodology and, of course, to their tangibility. For instance, through proper regulations, the materials and structures of heritage buildings can be maintained to a good extent.
But heritage management, even of the tangibles, cannot stop there. With some careful and systematic study, intangible elements such as crafts and styles which are tied to tangible heritage can be revealed, understood – and saved.
Today, advanced technology in heritage restoration allows us to discover the finer points in architectural elements, including artisanal skills and techniques of the past. This year, a collaboration between George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI) and the Bureau of Cultural Heritage of Taiwan provided opportunities for knowledge sharing on restoration practices, specifically wooden paintings. This also marked the very first time scientific restoration methods were used to restore wooden paintings in Chinese traditional architecture in Penang.
Wooden painting before restoration. Photo: Bureau of Cultural Heritage, Taiwan.
Led by Professor Shao Ching Wang of Tainan National University of the Arts and National Taiwan University of Arts, a group of conservationists based themselves at the Boon San Tong Khoo Kongsi to conduct restorative works. They were assisted by local restoration architect, Ooi Bok Kim, who ensured that communication between the team and the local partners went smoothly.
To be sure, over the decades, the main structures and wooden paintings of the century-old Boon San Tong had been renovated ample times. The most recent one was during 2013 and 2014, when some sections of deteriorated wooden paintings were renovated using the traditional “repaint” method – a common practice in Penang where the painter repaints an old surface, creating a new layer over it.
In this latest collaboration, however, another restoration method was used.
The targeted areas were the main sections of wooden frames and smaller wooden beams found at the upper part of the main hall. In these areas, around 50 sections of pictures had been painted on wooden panels. The first step of restoration was to examine the condition of the wooden paintings on each panel. After thorough studies, five layers of paintings were identified, but only three of them could be further distinguished – painted respectively in 1878, in 1927 and in the 1970s.
Wooden painting after restoration. Photo: Bureau of Cultural Heritage, Taiwan.
Depending on the respective conditions, different restoration strategies had to be used to retain the texture. In general, the procedure included cleaning, fixing peeled off and damaged parts, and retouching the colours. The core concept was to retain traces of different ages where possible – where intangible elements of heritage are exhibited – rather than pursuing coherence of age by removing layers.
Aside from the restoration, another important aim of the project was to cultivate local conservationists. It is only through the development of local talents that preservation strategies of this type can be applied. Last July and August, a series of workshops on hands-on restoration knowledge was offered by the Bureau of Cultural Heritage of Taiwan to interested members of the public, allowing them to better understand the restoration knowledge and craftsmanship of heritage edifices.
Developing Restoration Concepts
A restoration project like this is a time-consuming one – every process requires expertise and prudence, from research to experimenting for the suitable restoration material and execution. The decisions made during the process decide what is to be passed down to future generations.
This concept is prevalent in Taiwan, where there is a large collection of traditional southern Hokkien architecture. Over the years, restoration methods have been developed there because of the demand for it. Wooden paintings for example, are important decorative elements in traditional Chinese architecture, where images such as flowers, animals and stories are engraved to depict bliss or provide moral teachings.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the use of traditional and natural material such as mineral pigments was gradually replaced by paint, which was cheaper and which dried faster. Paint may have been more efficient, but it created new problems for restorers, especially where the “repaint” method had been used.
The introduction of western conservation concepts in the 1980s provided new perspectives on heritage preservation. Specific conditions of the artefacts were able to be better examined through scientific examination and analysis, thus allowing less intervention when it came to repair works. In wooden paintings, this method was able to reveal the “traces” left by the original artisans, giving insight into precious skills and artisanal traditions.
Document, Discuss, Develop
Preservation strategies are ever evolving. In George Town, due to relatively steady weather conditions, the wooden paintings generally remain in good condition despite its fragility otherwise, and peeling paint. This means that the texture of paint layers are better retained. This provides an advantage when it comes to heritage preservation – the different layers of paint can generally be identified.
Furthermore, since the 1980s, the local preservation movement has gained traction, such as the work done on the Cheong Fatt Tze mansion and other important heritage buildings. There have been discussions on the required skills for restoring smaller parts of architecture, such as wooden structures. For example, the restoration of the temple of the Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi highlighted the importance of traditional woodwork, raising interesting questions about the boundary between artists and artisans; the latter was deemed important in the field of crafts and skill.1
While increasing efforts have been put into restoration since 2008 following George Town’s World Heritage status, many challenges remain. Among them is the lack of systematic documentation of traditional craft, which partially results from the inability to trace and identify old artisans. Taiwanese experiences have shown how careful study can help George Town’s craft traditions to be identified and understood. The importance of documentation, and the realisation about the presence of styles and histories in certain crafts which might at first glance seem inconspicuous, are among the things learned.
After all, restoration is a skill of remembrance. Exploring the “traces” of heritage and their meaning helps decide how restoration work on tangibles and intangibles should proceed.
Pan Yi Chieh is a research analyst at Penang Institute who was born in Taiwan but now lives in Penang. She is proud to be nurtured by the two beautiful islands she regards as home.