Carol Weiss, Conservator of Chinese Paintings and Joanna Kosek, Head of Pictorial Art Section, Conservation and Scientific Research, British Museum
Anyone who has ever visited the Hirayama Conservation Studio in the British Museum has seen what a unique and impressive place it is. For within its venerable walls an old room found new life as the centre for the most delicate and artistic operations: the care, conservation and mounting of uncounted precious scrolls and similar art on paper and silk from East and South Asia.
This autumn the Hirayama Studio comes of age. For twenty-one years now work has been carried out in this studio and every year it is busier and busier. We have no idea how we would have coped had Professor Ikuo Hirayama and the Five Cities Art Dealers Association of Japan not come to our rescue in 1994, and given us our specially-designed studio housed in the Grade I listed building, once home to the Bloomsbury Savings bank.
Over the last year, four conservators from Japan have been working with us. Sent from the Association for Conservation of National Treasures (Kokuho Shuri Sokoshi Renmei), thanks to the generous sponsorship of the Sumitomo Foundation, the conservators have been working with us on our Collaborative Project for the Conservation of Japanese Paintings in the British Museum, now in its eighth year.
A recent highlight of the project has been collaborating on remounting the newly-acquired and breathtaking painting by Kitagawa Utamaro (c.1753–1806). Old and beautiful kimono silks used in the 19th-century mount were refurbished, combining modern textile conservation techniques with traditional Japanese scroll-mounting skills (watch out for our next blog for details on this).
At the same time, with generous support from the American Friends of the Shanghai Museum, three scroll-mounting experts from Shanghai Museum visited us. These experts worked with us, assisting and enabling our own Master Chinese scroll-mounter, Jin Xian Qiu, to conserve and remount two huge Chinese silk paintings (both measuring around 3.5 m x 1.5 m).
Thanks to this collaborative help, several paintings which were previously inaccessible due to their poor condition are now fully conserved and remounted.
This year was also a time of great change for the Hirayama Studio, as our Senior Conservator of Japanese Paintings, Keisuke Sugiyama, who has worked with us for the past eight years, returned to Japan to take up a teaching position. Keisuke is sorely missed. Our consolation is that Kyoko Kusunoki from the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Tokyo will join the team next spring, to continue the fantastic tradition of Japanese scroll-mounting that the Studio enjoys.
At the same time we are busily responding to the daily needs of the Museum. This means that every Asian painting, print, album, fan or screen in the Museum galleries (or any of them out on loan round the world) has been carefully checked and probably treated by us. Highlights in the last year have included the wonderful BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China, the newly refurbished Korea Foundation Gallery, The Prince and the Pir Middle-Eastern painted miniatures display, and the soon-to-be-displayed remarkable paintings by contemporary artist Qu Leilei (watch out for a short film on this on the BM YouTube channel in November.
Over the year, staff have contributed to a number of major international conferences, especially the International Institute for Conservation (IIC) congress in Hong Kong. We have given talks and welcomed many groups of students, hosted student placements – one an Institute of Conservation (Icon) intern – and continued our own specialist training under the watchful eyes of our scroll-mounting masters. (Remember that there is normally a ten-year training period to qualify as a scroll-mounter in East Asia).
And we are never short of visitors at the Studio: colleagues, VIPs, journalists and cameramen come from all over to visit us and learn more about scroll-mounting work.
This sums up this last momentous year, while the highlights over our first twenty-one years include:
- Work for the Mitsubishi Corporation Japanese Gallery displays (opened in 1990; refurbished in 2006)
- Work for the Korea Foundation Gallery displays (opened in 2000)
- Conservation of a six-fold Toyoharu screen by Mitsuhiro Abe, Andrew Thompson, Sydney Thomson and Sara Burdett, filmed as Secrets of the Screen, narrated by Sir David Attenborough (2001)
- Conservation and mounting of around 100 fragmentary Dunhuang paintings by Jin Xian Qiu and Zhu Pin Fang from Shanghai Museum (2002)
- The remarkable Sumitomo Foundation-funded Collaborative Project for the Conservation of Japanese Paintings in the British Museum which has to date allowed 14 conservators from the Association for Conservation of National Treasures to come and treat with us important paintings, including the imposing Tiger painting by Gan Ku which we have filmed and you can see here and here
- Investigation, expert consultation, treatment and redisplay of the world-famous Admonitions Scroll (watch for the full account in the forthcoming British Museum Technical Research Bulletin (BMTRB)
- Cooperation with the Shanghai Museum’s scroll-mounters
- Re-papering of the Korea Foundation Gallery’s Saranbang and the Mitsubishi Corporation Japanese Gallery Tea House
- Work for major British Museum exhibitions including The first emperor: China’s terracotta army, Kuniyoshi from the Arthur R. Miller Collection (at the Royal Academy of Arts), the BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China, and Shunga: sex and pleasure in Japanese art
- Training in both Japan and China for our conservators (to learn about Valentina’s year at Shanghai Museum, click here)
- Hosting numerous Masterclass workshops, including those by Jin Xian Qiu, Andrew Thompson, Yukio Yamamoto (sponsored by the Daiwa Anglo-Japan Foundation), Keisuke Sugiyama as well as many experts of the Association for Conservation of National Treasures in Japan, including Yukihiro Takegami, Itawaro-Yasuhiro Oka and Ryoko Kamei (sponsored by the Sumitomo Foundation)
- Countless talks, lectures and publications including ‘The study and conservation of the silk painting Death of the Buddha’ by Keisuke Sugiyama et al. in the BMTRB vol 8
It is never quiet in the Hirayama Studio! So as we celebrate our 21st birthday we look forward with new energy and excitement to all the projects that the coming months and years will bring.