Recap of the 4th APTCCARN Meeting | Embracing Cultural Materials Conservation in the Tropics

Julia Brennan, Textile Conservator

Attracting 100 participants from ten countries, and a large contingent from Taiwan, the forum was an energetic, diverse, informative, and congenial gathering. APTCCARN is unique– it is low key and congenial, and attendees all get to know one another. After every talk there were questions and discussions! Younger conservators and people interested in conservation, felt welcome and part of the dialogue, and many wonderful coffee breaks and fun dinners and field trip outings arranged by the university. Talks were presented by established and emerging conservators being a supported environment for the sharing of ideas and the mentoring of the next generation of conservators and heritage professionals.

 Living up to its reputation this meeting brought together people who are concerned with preserving cultural heritage in hot sticky climates, and attendees bonded in shared efforts to deal with these particular circumstances. Whether from Hong Kong, Philippines, Taiwan, or Thailand– everyone felt the common challenges of trying to preserve paintings, wood, drawings, textiles and metal with high humidity, insects and the monsoon weather patterns. Moreover, many work in circumstances that shape conservation daily work differently from colleagues in Europe or the USA. Much of APTCCARN’s attendees’ work is community oriented and driven; making decisions with elders, and clergy, and indigenous leaders, and small rural museum directors. The context, soil, climate, religion, language all shape the way conservation projects are directed, whether surveys or treatment. So, everyone joined in a spirit of mutual respect, recognising that the cultural context is paramount in daily work to successfully preserve the past for the future.

Leading the meeting was the local organising committee that included staff from Cheng Shiu University and the APTCCARN Organising Committee. Together they ensured everything ran smoothly, papers were kept to time, breaks were perfectly timed and visits and transfers well organised. Dr Ioseba Soraluze from the Conservation Center at Cheng Shiu University gave several papers along with his colleagues Tai Chun-shan and Lee Meng-ken. They also organised a fabulous paintings exhibition of Chen Cheng Po and the X-rays of his works, as well as made everyone feel welcome. A big congratulations to Ioseba and his colleagues from the Cheng Shiu Conservation Centre, who planned such an interesting and enjoyable conference, and worked so hard.  

New committee members have joined to work on the next APTCCARN meeting, slated for the Philippines. Diana Tay from Singapore is managing the website to include the program, attendees names and keep the momentum of this great forum going.


  • Dr Rujaya Abhakorn, Director of SEAMEO SPAFA, BANGKOK, gave encouraging  welcome remarks and reminded us all that this forum has a growing base in SEA. A stalwart supporter of APTCCARN, Ajarn as we know him, gives this meeting a continuity that is vital.

  • A knock-it-out-of-the-ballpark performance-art lecture by Professor Hsiao Chong rui, about the famed Taiwanese artist Chen Cheng Po. Music pianissimo, and crescendo, photos of painting details, and life in 1920’s Shanghai and Tokyo, an oratory and dramatic piece that drew the audience into the brush stroke and colour, and tragedy and triumph of this romantic painter – even with the minimal translation (she did a great job for someone on the job for 90 minutes!) we could feel the seduction of his words. Spectacular key note.

  • “Looking Through the Xray” - The Chen Cheng Po exhibit of paintings, coupled with X-rays revealing the artists’ change of mind, re use of canvas, concealing of a nude or two, thrift and love of painting was the ‘cherry on the cake’. Exquisite small canvases, many of them nudes that rival Chagall, Cezanne, and express the artist’s local town of Chaiyi or Shanghai. Beautifully installed, leaving walking space to reflect and pause between paintings and our own revelations. This exhibit was the first I’ve ever seen anywhere, showing the juxtaposition of painting and X-ray, to reveal such clear artist’s working process. Here, the value of conservation analysis was put on view, paraded, with a clear value for everyone.

  • Really really good pastries at every break! Wow.Wonderful Cheng Shiu University students to help everyone and just hang and chat.

  • The BEST GRAND HOTEL ever. Wow. In itself, a historic 1950 example of political power and everything Chinese. Red lipstick like columns towering along the front of a sweeping roof palace. A lake, Olympic swimming pool, tennis courts and golf course, dining rooms and elegant chrysanthemum carpets, and hard wood floors that shone from 60 years of soft polishing. The conference dinner was a spectacle of local university, dance, acrobatics, massive jovial god characters, 8 course dinner, and of course our group photos! What a symbolic place to celebrate! 


  • A photo of a Catholic religious procession in the Philippines; women carrying a statue of Jesus, in the aftermath of typhoons and total loss of homes, family, food, and community. The faces personified the devotion, the sense of necessary protection and preservation that communities muster in the face of disaster. This photo is haunting. The story will continue and repeat sadly. But here is our wake up call. Triage. Co teaching. Sustainable solutions. Cross training. Community. As a community of skilled custodians and conservators, local emergency systems and models are being resolving themselves.

  • DISASTER AND FLOODING, MOULD AND SALTS- these ongoing repeated problems in Southeast Asia were a theme. It’s not the once in a century flood, but every year now. Our work as conservators, architects, teachers, is all intrinsically connected to climate change, global warming, massive industrialisation, de forestation, over fishing, corporate domination, government malaise…..Thai ministry of culture unable to conduct emergency work on multiple temples during seasonal flooding or massive tragic flooding in 2011. Salts and mould, peeling paint and murals, frustrated monk custodians, lack of budgets, lack of analysis or even sand bags, analysis too slow so drying and restoration is done without a collaborative forum. Ajarn Chiraporn Aranyanark’s several talks dovetailed with other colleagues from Thailand, with Dr Shin Maekawa from the Getty conservation Institute, with Dr Ana Labrador from the National Museum of the Phillipines. When disaster strikes, we pull together, but resources need to be rationalised and appropriately mobilised. How can we plan for what is now the ‘new normal’? 

  • PASSIVE CLIMATE –We have forgotten how clever, how climate sensitive our predecessors were, just 75 years ago. Human comfort, and massive urban development, have promoted air con, the model of the pan Asian hotel and office unit. A 24/7 model that works when the corporations are paying. But museums and collections over and over again shut themselves up into concrete blocks, with poorly designed AC HVAC systems with NO heating or humidification components. Electricity fails, no generators, the government sheds the power, the local director has to save money and switches off the power, and repeatedly– the perfect roller coaster of humidity swings of 20-30 degrees daily, which grow mould, mildew, millions of exotic spores, spiders, silver fish.

  • Arjan Chiraporn informed everyone of the enormous power and electric bills of various museums and collections in Bangkok, which still do not maintain a steady RH or temperature, and invite conservation disasters. In one case, a BKK based museum spends over $100,000 US per month on air conditioning. Cut off at night, as it is for the human comfort only. As Asian museums proliferate, thinking about long term environmental planning, sustainable architecture, protection of the collections, and training of a group of custodians who are connected to social media, colleagues in SEA, and talk about the way forward, trainings in more holistic collections management. Clearly, we all share a huge concern for the collections environment.

  • There were many papers from Chulalonkorn and Silpakorn Universities, as well as the National Discovery Centre and Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles in Bangkok. Conservation research is growing in strength as the Thai researchers are building knowledge and building partnerships to solve their problems.

  • PRACTICALITY AND ALTERNATIVE ENVIRONMENTAL STRATEGIES FOR HOT HUMID CLIMATES- Dr Shin Maekawa, co author with Michael Henry and Vincent Beltran, gave a very inspirational talk about the potential to change the architectural paradigm in hot sticky climates. What a ‘refreshing’ talk literally. Change the use of local data of RH and temperature to use historic averages, question the over design of museums and collection spaces, and utilise new models that employ heating and dehumidification to achieve more suitable local results. Shin proposed a workshop in alternative conservation strategies for hot and humid climates architecture and renovations of museums. More on this later as discussions take place.

  • The theme of alternative environmental strategies, was addressed by a French conservator, working with paintings and ‘colonial housing’ in Madagascar and Reunion. Sarah Davarinche came from France, because of the theme of preserving cultural materials in the tropics. While her thesis was focused on a painting, it was really about location, community, vernacular architecture, an openness to the local conditions and how to augment and utilise them. Here, she made a call to the old ‘colonial’ models of open architecture with air circulation, directional cross breezes, ventilated hallways, increased human intervention and care –– passive climate.

  • It was great to see so many of Singapore’s Heritage Conservation Centre HCC staff at APTCCARN! HCC announced the expansion of their analytical and research labs, with Hanna Szczepanowska, formerly of Smithsonian, as well as Miki Komatsu, Sylvia Haliman, Sarah Benson, and Cindy Lau. This expanded resource will hopefully collaborate with other SEA collections and solve some age-old questions.

  • Circling back to community, and the challenges when collections end up far from their sources or areas of production and use. Emily Keppel, of the University of Melbourne program, gave a fascinating talk. Handed a collection of 19th c Islamic manuscripts and books, her nascent investigation is sensitive, inquisitive, and modest. The underpinnings of cultural context, is evident here – her work to date is object based research, leading to action, and collaboration. 

  • COMMUNITY – Sophie Lewincamp set the tone on morning day 1 talking about working together with aboriginal communities in Australia, to conserve, analyse, and set a future course for their paintings. Her talk was a model for many, who need to actively listen and learn from the people we work with, whose heritage we are asked to advise about.

  • Other interesting talks included treatment comparisons of Taiwan paintings, drawings, railway tracings, books that all need to be archived, and often conserved. The examination of ‘Asian’ methods, those have historically been used to restore paper and painting, were compared and challenged with ‘western’ methods. Several conservators explored the use of alternative materials such as modern foam boards instead of wood panels; and the modification of backing boards for paintings and paper.

Originally published online 29 January, 2016