Conservation at work: dismantling Orientalist Paintings exhibition at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

Written by Rafidah Bahari (Malaysia, ITP 2018)

The Orientalist Paintings: Mirror or Mirage? exhibition at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia started on 2 June 2023 and finished on 15 October 2023. The past weeks, unfortunately, was the time for dismantling. It is quite sad to announce that this exhibition has finally come to an end. This exhibition required two separate galleries and demanded a lot of work; however, it was a great process and experience for me. The main parts of the exhibition that I am involved with is the conservation side, which is challenging and time consuming.  From the very beginning, during, and after the dismantling of the exhibition, me and my team of conservators have to work on decision making, analysis material, treatment, preventive conservation and routine checks. You can see me standing beside the painting of Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun’s portrait of Muhammad Dervish Khan, and it was the same painting that Victoria Beckham stood in front at the exhibition for The Female Triumphant at Sotheby’s New York.

Rafidah standing next to Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun’s portrait of Muhammad Dervish Khan.

Why do we need the routine check?  The inspection starts since the opening of the exhibition to make sure there is no vandalism on the objects on display. This shameful act against objects of art has happened around the world, and we know how it becomes worse day by day. At the museum, we need to be careful, so this incident would not happen on our premises.

Rafidah cleaning an object in a display case.

Dealing with unstable humidity is also a bigger problem for the gallery and collections. Therefore, it is also for us to make sure no organisms grow, and dust gathers on the surface. Again, is time-consuming and once it is detected we need to rescue it and the bell will ring, like when patients need emergency rescue. Of course, we assess the data such as the reading on temperatures and humidity every day.

Malaysia’s weather now always changes and the forecast points to more rain, with some areas receiving it more heavily and others more evenly, both in terms of time and space.  Now the exhibition ends with watching all these great works leave the gallery, and back to the permanent gallery and storeroom while waiting for the next upcoming exhibitions. Now our focus is to work hard and plan for our next exhibitions on this December, in conjunction with the 25th anniversary of the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia. Conservation has received the list of artifacts and now our work will be to coordinate and collaborate with the Curatorial department, display team, records and collections for the first phase of the work.  

The exhibition entrance to Orientalist Paintings: Mirror or Mirage?

If you are interested to know more about our upcoming exhibitions, please do visit our website, and find the current and previous exhibition highlights. Wish us all the best and see you back for more information, from me, Rafidah Bahari, Malaysia, ITP 2018.