Restoring artefacts to tell tales of yore

The Heritage Conservation Centre 's main storage room which houses artefacts from Singapore's National Collection.
The Heritage Conservation Centre 's main storage room which houses artefacts from Singapore's National Collection.ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

SINGAPORE - Ms Claire Lim, 32, had been sitting with a mid-20th century rice basket for hours, considering if there was anything to fix and, if so, how.

The conservator at the Heritage Conservation Centre (HCC) in Jurong is acutely aware of how every decision she makes will have historical significance, and could change how people understand and interpret the century-old object.

The rice basket in question was last used for serving rice on ceremonial occasions on the Indonesian island of Madura and is now in the custody of the HCC.

Tasked to get it ready for exhibition, Ms Lim likens what she does to "surgery" - it will entail experience, discernment and creativity.

"Not everything that's dirty needs to be cleaned. Not everything that's broken needs to be stitched back together," she said.

"We want to make sure what we do is reversible and that it is all recorded and not hidden. It could change the object's significance, its value and what is important about it."

Objects gain meaning as they are used. Unthinkingly making a used basket pristine could negate decades of change that would obfuscate instead of help historians understand how they were used in the real world.

The HCC stores, preserves and distributes the over 200,000 artefacts and paintings in Singapore's national collection. Every piece is processed here, but only a fraction is displayed to the public in museums like the National Gallery and the Asian Civilisations Museum at any time.

While it plays a supporting role to the galleries, the HCC has in fact been at the centre of Singapore's cultural landscape for 20 years.

Today, it will take a step from the wings onto the main stage for a change. Amid muted celebrations of its milestone anniversary, it is launching a video series to take viewers on a live tour of its facilities that are usually out of bounds to the public.

"Hear from the passionate collections team, conservators, photographers and estate managers as they take you behind the scenes, giving you a rare opportunity to witness what they do every day," promises the National Heritage Board (NHB), which will host the Facebook Live videos on its page.

NHB oversees the HCC and other cultural institutions here.

HCC director Ong Chiew Yen, 47, took The Straits Times on an exclusive tour of the centre's premises this month.

Now in her second year at the helm, Ms Ong highlighted how, just 20 years ago, having such world-class, purpose-built facilities for cultural objects was a pipe dream.

"It is a privilege for us to be working so close to the national collection - having this facility here and a team of this size," she said.

Heritage Conservation Centre director Ong Chiew Yen. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

The centre now has on its payroll 33 conservators and 26 others in charge of managing the collection. It has 26 collection stores, many of which are calibrated to maintain a precise temperature and humidity so objects are not damaged in storage.

In practice, this sometimes means employees work in rooms with no windows. Ms Agnes Sing, 48, a senior collections officer, said she works in total silence and cannot see if the sun has gone down or what the weather outside is.

Yet, her love of the job has kept her going for nearly 22 years. She finds the quiet and solitude "therapeutic", and said the beauty and cultural value of the paper and paintings which she helps archive make it all worthwhile.

Conservators working on paper artefacts such as documents and photographs at the Heritage Conservation Centre. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Conservator Chen Chuance, 37, wanted to work in the fashion industry when he was younger, but now specialises in textiles at the HCC.

He frequently deals with silk threads when restoring items and sometimes can be found squinting as he uses tweezers to make stitches because of how thin the material is.

Pointing at a Peranakan bead slipper, he said what needs maintenance is often unexpected. It is symbolic of the work the conservators at the HCC do.

"You would think it is the beads that need care, but it is the threads that are binding the beads together. That is my job," he said. "There is no shortcut to refining my skill. I do it 100 times."

So easily displaced are the gossamer threads that "when I sew, I sometimes remind myself not to breathe", he said.

Conservator Chen Chuance examining beads on a piece of textile at the Heritage Conservation Centre. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Some conservators at the HCC are branching out, increasing the scope of their duties in ways that they find more fulfilling.

In the paintings section where three conservators are helping to prepare Singapore painter Georgette Chen's paintings for exhibition, the excellent state of the works has allowed them time to do research, write academic essays and form new conclusions about how she fits into Singapore's art history and her relationship with other artists.

Conservator Maria Del Mar Cusso Solana, 44, said: "We are writing an article and it is very exciting. There is always more and more to do."

Ms Ong said her job in the coming years is to cement Singapore's position as the leader in the field in South-east Asia.

Just last year, the HCC held its first international conference, with 300 participants from Asia and Europe. With the right resources and support, more of these seminars could be arranged, she said.

"We can share our knowledge and expertise with professionals in South-east Asia," said Ms Ong. "We want to reach out and build our leadership and collection."