Three early career Indonesian conservators and five Indonesian interns undertook the Bali Art and Heritage Conservation Internship Program (#BAHCIP), with the generous support of the Australia Awards Indonesia’s Alumni Grant Scheme. Developed by Grimwade Centre (University of Melbourne) alumnus Saiful Bakhri, the internship program was executed in a hybrid format featuring an online lecture series and a three-week in-person internship in Bali, Indonesia, at two local museums: Museum Pustaka Lontar in Karangasem and Museum Puri Lukisan in Ubud. Activities were largely focused on knowledge sharing, capacity building, mentoring, educating, and training in conservation skills for the interns and museum staff. Despite the turmoil caused by the COVID-19 pandemic throughout the project duration, it turned out to be a rewarding and fulfilling experience for all the participants and, most importantly, it shed a glimmer of hope for the future of conservation in Indonesia.
A few days after #BAHCIP ended, a news channel on television repeatedly aired Malala Yousafzai, the female education advocate, who assertively declared her famous quote ‘One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.’ Her statement resonated a lot with us, especially after having spent the past few weeks immersed in the internship program. This project was birthed with the hope of fruitful knowledge sharing and collaboration in cultural materials conservation discourse and practices within the Indonesian context. With the existing issues and challenges faced by the art and cultural heritage sectors in Indonesia, such as lack of conservation professionals and deterioration threats pertinent to tropical countries, we grieve the fact that if the same condition were to persist there will be intergenerational preservation failure awaiting us.
The aim of Yousafzai’s passionate communication to global citizens was evident in the internship program. Her statement instilled in us that in order to change the world – i.e., change the conservation landscape in Indonesia for the better – what’s required is a start. A start in doing something that is realistic, feasible and sustainable by bringing together people who have knowledge, people with the eagerness to learn, the right program planning and, of course, the resources to take all these to actualisation.
The online lecture series was held every Friday afternoon for five weeks. The speakers represented various organisations from academia, professional organisations, and private institutions. The purpose was to introduce the interns to the development of conservation as a discipline, its ethics and professional practices, as well as introductory knowledge of Balinese art and heritage.
Our first speaker, Dr Nicole Tse from the Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation at the University of Melbourne, talked about the conservation discipline and how it has evolved from traditional practices of restoring art objects to a community-engaged discipline. In the second week, Selina Halim shared her career development after graduating from the University of Melbourne’s Master of Cultural Materials Conservation Program; from the early stage of her career at Heritage Conservation Centre in Singapore to becoming a senior paintings conservator at David Stein & Co in Sydney, NSW. Next, Grace Barrand, AICCM’s Vice President, talked about the importance of the profession and its associated professional organisation; how ethics are an important foundation of the profession.
In the third week, we invited two speakers from the United States to talk about conservation study and work experience. Sandra Sardjono, founder of Tracing Patterns Foundation, discussed her study experience at the Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, and her early career as a textiles conservator at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City. Kristal Hale, a conservation fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met), spoke on how she earned her textile conservation degree from Abegg-Stiftung / Bern University of Applied Sciences and eventually gained her current fellowship at the Met.
In our final two weeks, we had the heads of our in-person activity as hosts: Tjokorda Bagus Astika of Museum Puri Lukisan, and I Nengah Suarya of Museum Pustaka Lontar. Tjok Bagus talked to us about how the Balinese arts evolved from traditional practices related to religion and how the European influenced these practices until today. Meanwhile, I Nengah Suarya told us how the Museum Pustaka Lontar was founded, and challenges in resources and working with the community.
In-person internship part I: Museum Pustaka Lontar
Our on-site activities began on 19 June 2021 in Bali, following the strict health measures in place at the time of the event. Museum Pustaka Lontar in Karangasem regency was our host for the first week. Unlike most, the museum is a community-led museum with primary aims that revolve around the documentation, care, and education of Balinese lontar or palm leaf manuscripts. The formation of the museum was sparked by the concern of I Nengah Suarya, Community Leader of Penaban Customary Village, over the preservation of the lontar objects housed locally within the community.
Traditionally, lontar are considered a family heirloom. Most are treated as sacred objects as they often bear ancient text—traditional medicines, Mahabharata epochs, and black magic rituals, for example. Unfortunately, the skill of writing and reading traditional Balinese script is in sharp decline. According to museum staff, this condition results in various misinterpretations of text and mishandling of manuscripts, which risk physical damage to the collection. Museum Pustaka Lontar addresses these concerns through community activation—with full acknowledgement of how traditional knowledge over living heritage is produced. Since 2017, the museum and the community of Penaban Customary Village have been tirelessly working bottom-up towards their aims and have gained international recognition for their grass-root efforts.
#BAHCIP acknowledges the importance of a critical heritage preservation approach among contemporary practitioners. Based on the growing need to hone sensitivity towards traditional and indigenous knowledge and practices among emerging conservators, we designed the first part of BAHCIP on-site learning to intersect with Museum Pustaka Lontar’s main preservation methods: 1) education of Balinese language and script; 2) cleaning and housing of lontar manuscripts; 3) documentation and digitisation of the collection.
Due to the nature of the knowledge domain, we spent the week of our stay primarily listening to and learning from museum staff and collection custodians rather than the other way around. Approaching knowledge exchange in this way, we hope to provide a primer that expands both our interns’ and mentors’ understanding of the concepts and care of cultural heritage beyond the codified or top-down knowledge.
In-person internship part II: Museum Puri Lukisan
The second part of the on-site program took place at Museum Puri Lukisan (MPL) in Ubud for two weeks. It is the oldest art museum in Ubud, Bali, and home to the finest collection of traditional and modern Balinese paintings and wood carvings spanning from the pre-war (1930–1945) to the post-war (1945–present) eras. The museum was founded in 1936 by Tjokorda Gede Agung Sukawati (the King of Ubud) and the Dutch artist Rudolf Bonnet (1895–1978) through the Pita Maha Artist Cooperative. Its mission is to preserve, develop and document its collection of traditional–modern Balinese paintings along with each work’s historical and cultural significance. The program leader chose MPL as a host museum for several reasons, such as continuation of previous partnership (see Konservaction’s 2017 project), the opportunity for participants to learn about Balinese art and heritage, and the museum’s contextual suitability to introduce conservation treatment to the interns. Additionally, the pandemic has caused a devastating impact to the museum since it hit Bali in early 2020. This is because the museum mainly runs on ticketing sales to sustain its day-to-day operations and, due to travel restrictions, it has experienced a decrease in visitors and income by 85 per cent. As a result, there was a major staff downsizing, which in turn impacted how the collections are taken care of.
Fortunately, of all the museums in Bali, MPL is probably one of the few that has an in-house conservator. Wayan Sumadi trained for six weeks in paper conservation at the Heritage Conservation Centre in Singapore in 2011. Due to the staff cut down, he has been unable to perform conservation work as his duties have shifted to managing museum operations that prioritise ongoing temporary exhibitions. In designing the program activities, we also took into consideration how we could best help Sumadi care for the museum collections during this tough season.
Prior to the start of the internship program, we had drafted a plan of two-way learning activities with the interns as well as a treatment for a painting that is in poor condition. But as we got to know Sumadi, the museum and its collections better, we realised we had to adapt to the situation in order to add the most value to the museum during our two weeks there. We were faced with unexpected problems such as paintings on display being covered with dust and spider webs, the conservation lab/workspace and materials being in an unorganised setting, and paintings being improperly stored.
As such, the main activities conducted were:
- Introduction to paintings conservation treatment for the interns, which included both theory and hands-on practical on mock-up objects. This covered processes common to painting conservation such as non-invasive examination, documentation, dry cleaning, humidification, consolidation, infilling and inpainting. Materials were taken from previous lectures as well as online resources and were curated to fit the goal of this activity, to introduce the complex steps in conservation and to spark the interns’ interest in pursuing formal conservation education.
- Introduction to paper conservation treatment by Sumadi for the interns, which covered processes such as making wheat starch paste, tear repair, and toning of paper.
- Condition reporting of paintings on display.
- Dry cleaning (brush vacuuming) of paintings on display by the interns under the supervision of mentors. With the current lack of resources to do cleaning and maintenance of the collections on display, the interns helped the museum while at the same time practising dry cleaning. We believe this to be one of the most appropriate skills for the interns to develop as most are affiliated with their regional museums.
- Re-organisation and cleaning of the conservation lab, workspace, and storage. This also included labelling of all materials (conservation and non-conservation) that were bestowed to Sumadi and the museum.
- Re-housing of paintings with conservation-grade materials, to be properly stored.
All in all, amid the uncertainty and restrictions that the COVID-19 pandemic brought, we were pushed to be quick on our feet while constantly reassessing what we meant by aiming for a ‘realistic’, ‘feasible’, and ‘sustainable’ outcome. Looking at the current conservation practice in Indonesia, having formal training in the profession at a post-graduate level from overseas is truly a privilege. As mentors in the program, we were greatly benefitted by the conservation education that we received during our masters’ at the Grimwade Centre, University of Melbourne, and it was only right to be able to share this with the future generation of budding conservators in Indonesia. The interns found that the program fulfilled their expectations and acknowledged the urgent need for and importance of conservation. We hope that the relationship and trust built through this program with both the host museums and the interns can be a means to increase awareness, interest and appreciation for the conservation profession.