One Small Voice – Lee Siew Wah

Published on 23 December 2016

Heritage Conservation Centre’s Lee Siew Wah shares insights on her role as a paper conservator.

As a paper conservator, my daily work involves the conservation and preservation of paper-based materials like artworks and artefacts that are part of the national collection under the custodianship of the National Heritage Board (NHB). The national collection is used by the NHB museums, heritage institutions and art museums, like the National Gallery Singapore.

Not only do we prepare artefacts and artworks for exhibition, we also maintain the national collection. To preserve artworks, the environment is key. As the saying goes, prevention is better than cure. At the Heritage Conservation Centre, we store hundreds of thousands of artefacts and artworks in very controlled environments. For paper, that’s around 22°C and 55 per cent relative humidity (with a tight fluctuation range).

When artworks come to us, they’re usually not in very good condition. Some are tattered and torn, or very brittle, especially old maps from the late 1800s. Before we start, we talk to the curators. As they are the ones who have done research on the historical and artistic background of the works, they’re the best people to judge if a brown spot should be removed or not. Especially with abstract or contemporary art, that stain may be part of the artist’s work!

Also, our approach differs depending on whether the artwork is a gallery piece or a museum piece. For example, if it’s from the National Gallery, the curators tend to focus on the aesthetic aspects. For them, we may suggest conservation treatments to make the work more aesthetically pleasing, while preserving its integrity and intrinsic value. But if it’s from the National Museum, the curators look at the historical aspects, and the aim of treatments is more to stabilise the artefacts for display, storage and handling.

People often confuse conservation with commercial restoration. For us, we adhere very strictly to conservation principles and ethics established internationally. Commercial restorers, on the other hand, have been known to over-paint and modify the artworks; so much so that their historical, cultural or artistic value may be lost.

PHOTO: iStock

At the Centre, we have conservators focusing on paper, paintings, textiles, and objects. Conservation is as much a science as an art. If done properly, people will see and appreciate the artwork as a complete piece of art, and not notice the background work.

During Singapore Art Week, I’ll be on an expert panel sharing on conservation challenges. If you own artworks or old photos, you’ll also face challenges storing and preserving your collection and things you value. From our discussion, I hope you can link the insights to your personal collection.

The Insights Into Conservation Challenges panel is held at the National Gallery Singapore, 22 Jan, 3pm.

Lee Siew Wah is a senior conservator (Paper) with the Heritage Conservation Centre, National Heritage Board of Singapore. She has been a conservator for more than 20 years, and received professional accreditation from The Institute of Conservation (UK) in 2012. She holds a degree in Chemistry from the National University of Singapore, and a Master of Arts degree in conservation from Camberwell College of Arts, UK. 

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