Tibetan painted banners (called thangkas) are one of the best known and most beautiful expressions of Tibetan art. Due to their fragility, their religious use (rolling and unrolling are frequent), the remoteness of some places and the lack of available conservation education in the area, many thangkas are in very poor condition and many have been already lost. In 2003, UNESCO created a programme called ‘Safeguarding of Monastic Heritage in the Himalayan Region’; the aim was to provide training to local people in areas of conservation most relevant to the region, in four different workshops held in different Himalayan countries and addressing the main identified areas of need. These were: earth architecture, mural paintings, thangkas and objects, and timber architecture. I was enlisted as an expert in thangka conservation to help draft up this programme. This paper will describe the different steps in organising a regional teaching programme, from the conservator’s point of view, and the main issues that arise in these particular conditions.

The programme started with a working meeting in Delhi which brought together conservation experts, scholars, religious practitioners, local artisans and heritage professionals, including local architects, to identify key issues to be addressed. Every participant was asked to give a 30-minute talk about their particular experience. This proved to be the main linking point between people who then knew exactly what the others’ line of thought was; this not only saved time but opened paths for common reflection. During the discussion groups that followed, specific concerns were expressed, both by local heritage professionals and by monastic representatives; this, added to my previous experiences of training in the Himalayas made some of my preconceived ideas obsolete leading to my already shaped workshop programme being reshuffled and reassessed. I participated on the ‘thangkas and objects’ workshop, and during the 12 months following
the Delhi meeting it changed shape, duration and location several times; joint work between UNESCO offices in Paris, local heritage and religious people and myself turned it eventually into a workshop focused only on thangkas, fully addressing their conservation problems and therefore including a textile conservator and two paintings conservators. It was held in Kathmandu in May 2005 for 25 selected participants from different Himalayan countries.

During the twelve-day workshop, six thangkas were treated, which covered a large range of conservation problems. Teaching Himalayan people poses a few challenges, language (and the number of different languages – the difficulties for communication between the people) being only one of them. Other topics for reflection include:

  • Selection of participants, level of experience and coordination with other local training programmes
  • Simplicity of the information, to be accessible to every participant
  • Involvement of people in every step of the training, bearing in mind the particularities of South East Asian culture
  • Teaching critical thinking and problem solving even if you are constantly asked for recipes
  • Solving daily problems yourself, while being constantly watched
  • Providing time for visits, as this is the best communication tool with the broader community
  • Walking the fine line between choosing extremely damaged pieces to give material for rewarding and instructive work, and not upsetting the person in charge by outlining the artwork’s condition
  • Working with key locally implanted people to solve well in advance all administrative matters (and there are plenty)
  • Staying open minded as the most bizarre solutions may be discussed, and do not necessarily prove wrong
  • Constantly involve people for active participation and self challenge
  • Encouraging interactions, exchanges and curiosity between participants
  • Encouraging follow-up projects after the workshop.

This has been a real challenge for a conservator, and a good way to exercise practice out of my comfort zone; such projects are strongly dependant on many different skills, but not purely conservation ones: communication, perseverance, team work, empathy, generosity
and self control to name a few of them; and it stimulates one thing that is perhaps not encouraged enough in our profession: creativity.

Insights & Intuition: 10th Paintings SIG Symposium 2006
Paper author:
Cotte, Sabine