From the past to the museum: Conservation journey tracked in National Heritage Board exhibition

The work of Heritage Conservation Centre conservators (from left) Chuance Chen, Damian Lizun, Sophia Lee and Lee Siew Wah is profiled in the exhibition. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO
The toothbrush belonged to Australian prisoner of war Sergeant John Ritchie Johnston who was held in Singapore during World War II. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO
The exhibition also tracks the behind-the-scenes conservation journey a 19th century painting of an opium ship. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

SINGAPORE - When assistant conservator Sophia Lee got hold of a prisoner's toothbrush from World War II, it was in pieces. She had to do extensive research on the type of plastic it was made from to determine how to put it back together.

This example of what goes into conservation work - before an object is displayed in Singapore's museums - is now showcased in a new exhibition at the National Library Building.

Put together by the National Heritage Board and featuring conservators from its Heritage Conservation Centre, the exhibition opened on Wednesday (Aug 25) and will run at the Central Public Library until Sept 30.

It will then rotate through public libraries until February 2022, including stops in Bishan in October and Jurong West in November.

The exhibition also tracks the behind-the-scenes conservation journey of a socialite's cheongsam, a 19th century painting and a panorama drawing of Singapore's bayfront

It profiles four conservators who work with different types of items - textiles, paper, objects and paintings.

The display stands have information on the items and some tools used by conservators. Two stands have short videos detailing parts of the conservation process.

The showcase also has interactive elements, with the stand on the toothbrush featuring a puzzle which simulates the work of putting the pieces back together.

The toothbrush belonged to Australian prisoner of war Sergeant John Ritchie Johnston, who was held in Singapore during World War II.

Ms Lee, 29, discovered a small manufacturing inscription on it which said "sterilised pure bristles, freeman London" - indicating that the toothbrush might not have been made in Singapore. There was also evidence that the bristles had worn away and were replaced, possibly by the owner.

She told The Straits Times: "Over the course of the conservation work, we often find things that help us understand the story of the object and hence the story and historical significance of its owner."

The same can be said of the cheongsam that textile conservator Chuance Chen, 38, worked on.

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The cheongsam and accompanying jacket belonged to Ms Aw Cheng Hu, late daughter of Mr Aw Boon Par, part of the family which owned Haw Par Corporation, which produced the Tiger Balm ointment, and Haw Par Villa.

"The opulent fabric and the cut of the dress - which was more loose fitting than how cheongsam are often made - tells us about the lifestyle of Ms Aw and gives us an insight into her social world and her personal preferences," Mr Chen told ST.

The other two stands focus on a 19th century painting of an opium ship and a 2014 drawing of a panorama by British artist Stephen Wiltshire.

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The painting - by an unknown artist - had a layer of overpaint changing the original work and potentially damaging it, which senior conservator Damian Lizun had to remove.

For the panorama, senior conservator Lee Siew Wah had to deal with the issue of cockling, which happens when there are wrinkles on the paper. These can cause permanent creases to the artwork.

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