Discovering the secrets of Japanese paper conservation
Paper conservator, Emma Le Cornu, describes a visit to Tokyo to learn the secrets of Japanese paper conservation.
For three weeks in August and September 2013, I had the opportunity to attend the International Course on the Conservation of Japanese Paper in Tokyo, Japan. This annual course is organized by the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) and hosted by the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, in Tokyo.
The course has been running every year since 1992 and invites conservators from all over the world to study Japanese paper conservation in Japan.
The aim is to give an insight into traditional Japanese paper mounting materials and techniques for non-Japanese conservators, providing a greater understanding of how to care for Japanese paper artefacts in their own collections. It is also an opportunity for an exchange of ideas and techniques between Japanese and western traditions.
Ten conservators, each from a different country, were my classmates. We had two weeks of intensive practical work in Tokyo and a week-long study trip to visit the papermaking district of Mino and the traditional material and tool suppliers of Kyoto.
Japanese paper conservation
Japanese paper conservation techniques and materials have a long history and are now used extensively in western paper conservation. Traditionally Japanese scroll mounters will train for ten years to develop the skills and understanding of the materials and techniques involved in the construction of a scroll.
Demonstration of lining techniques for scroll mounting.
To give us a taste of these processes we each made a traditional Japanese hand scroll from start to finish. The practical work involved an intensive daily programme of demonstrations and translated instructions of each stage, which we then carried out on our own scrolls. Our tutors were all very accomplished and experienced conservators working in various studios in Tokyo and Kyoto. The practical work was supplemented with lectures by the tutors describing their current research activities.
Repairing damage to the artwork.
Japanese paper is used in almost all areas of paper conservation. It has qualities that make it suitable for conservation: it is very pure so it does not degrade, it is strong due to the long fibres, and it can be made in extremely thin sheets. We were taken to a traditional Japanese papermaking mill to see how these sheets of paper are made.
Hasegawa Washi Kobo, traditional papermaking studio in Mino, Japan: the raw materials for the paper - Kozo bark - in various states of preparation.
Washing the bark to remove impurities.
The traditional papermaking technique and equipment are still used today and sheets are handmade, one by one, on a bamboo screen. The bark of the mulberry tree, Kozo, is processed to make a pulp, with the only additive being the mucilage from the root of the hibiscus plant. Japanese Kozo is a hybrid of Broussonetia kazinoki (China) and Broussonetia papyrifera (SE Asia). This creates an extremely pure and high quality sheet of paper. These special papers are used in Japan specifically for conservation and exported to conservation studios internationally.
Hasegawa Washi Kobo, traditional papermaking studio in Mino, Japan: forming the sheet from the paper pulp.
The finished sheet on the bamboo screen.
Tools and materials
We were also taken to a number of traditional tool and materials suppliers. The adhesives, pigments and tools such as brushes and knives also have a long traditional heritage. Many of the adhesives and pigments are natural and plant-derived materials such as wheat starch and seaweed. The specialist brushes and knives are still handmade by family-run businesses that have been passed down through the generations.
Kanetaka Hamono Shinise, Knife Shop, Kyoto. Tools are still handmade in the shop by the fourth generation of the same family.
Japanese conservation studios
Japanese conservation studios differ greatly from a western studio. It is traditional to work on the floor on low tables, without shoes. Traditional materials are still used, such as ten year aged paste, which is stored in large clay pots underground for a total of ten years before it is ready to use. Scrolls are often completely taken apart and re-mounted whereas in a western studio we would be more likely to keep and conserve all of the original materials. These different working methods made for interesting discussions and comparisons of Japanese and western techniques.
Many of the skills I learned have made it back into my work here and I have a much greater understanding of the complex construction of Japanese artworks and the Japanese materials we use on a daily basis. I also learned a great deal from the exchange created by bringing together a diverse group of conservators, in an unfamiliar and inspiring environment.
- Emma -