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Conservation of Indonesian Rod Puppets (Wayang Golek)

The nobleman Ashvatthama (Aswatama), 1800–1900

The nobleman Ashvatthama (Aswatama), 1800–1900. Indonesia; Tegal, Central Java. Wood, cloth, and mixed media. Gift from the Mimi and John Herbert Collection, F2000.85.61.

Ashvatthama (F2000.85.61), cross section showing right lower armband

Ashvatthama (F2000.85.61), cross section showing right lower armband. In cross-section analysis, tiny paint samples are embedded in a transparent plastic, which hardens and is then ground away and polished until the edge of the sample is exposed. The sample is then studied under a microscope. The characteristics observed include the number and color of paint layers present, the order in which they were applied, the thickness of the layer, and the characteristics of pigment particles. This type of analysis helps to distinguish between original paint layers and any retouching or overpainting.

The nobleman Ashvatthama (Aswatama), 1800–1900
Ashvatthama (F2000.85.61), cross section showing right lower armband

The Role of Conservation at a Museum
The primary goal of the Conservation department at the Asian Art Museum is to preserve the museum’s collection for future generations. This goal is achieved through a number of activities including controlling the surrounding environment, performing conservation treatment, and researching fabrication methods and deterioration processes.

The Conservation department works with curators, museum engineers, and registrars to create safe environmental conditions while also working closely with exhibit designers and mountmakers to create exhibition spaces that allow the objects to be viewed in such a way as to prevent damage. Whether a single object or large groups of similar objects are on display in an exhibit or tucked away in storage, the goal is to care for the objects and to prevent or slow their deterioration, thereby preserving them for future generations to learn from and enjoy.

Conservation of the Wayang Golek Collection at the Asian Art Museum
The puppets arrived at the museum in varying conditions ranging from excellent to extremely fragile. Some of the arms and handling rods had become detached, and some of the textiles were dirty, worn, and had holes in them. Often, costume elements were in danger of becoming lost, and many puppets could not be placed upright because paint would have fallen off them in this position. Conservation’s first job was to identify which puppets were in poor or fragile condition and then determine how they needed to be treated in order to preserve the various materials used in their construction.

The puppets in the Asian Art Museum’s collection are constructed of diverse materials, including wood, textile, leather, and paint, as well as applied metal, glass, and plastic elements. Overall conditions varied from puppet to puppet due to the range of construction materials as well as age, use, and previous environmental conditions. Many puppets had been repaired by the puppeteers who used them. These repairs contain valuable historical information about how the dalang cared for their puppets, showing how the appearance of the puppet has changed. They help us understand what materials the dalang used to fix their puppets and in what manner they were repaired so they could again be used in performances. The puppets’ condition also contains clues as to how they were manufactured and cared for; any changes made since their original making are a part of their history. It is important to document and preserve this information because it helps us determine how the collection needs to be maintained.

Materials Used in the Construction and Manufacture of Wayang Golek
In order to determine an appropriate conservation treatment, a clear understanding of the materials used to construct wayang golek is needed. The typical puppet is constructed from light-colored softwood that has been carved, brightly painted, and dressed in various textiles as well as from applied decorative elements such as beads, hair, tassels, and leather items. A complete puppet includes the body, head, arms, and in some cases, legs, as well as the central rod (cempurit) held by the dalang. String is used to attach the jointed arms to the body. Wooden or horn rods, attached with string to the hands, are used to control movement. Costumes vary according to where and when the puppet was made, what type of character (refined, semirefined, strong, emotionally uncontrolled, or special), and what specific character it represents. Traditionally, regardless of character type, wayang golek wear a skirt, usually with a batik design. Some characters wear long-sleeved blouses, and some female characters wear strapless bodices. Noblemen and other male characters often wear bib-shaped velvet coverings and aprons adorned with sequins and beads.

Literature on the wayang golek tradition suggests that the carved wooden parts of the puppets are first covered with yellow paint and then overpainted with bright colors or gold paint. The demanding physical action of performances often causes damage to the puppets. Therefore, they are frequently repainted, often in a different color from the original.

Scientific Analysis and Conservation
In order to determine an appropriate conservation treatment method and to compile information about Indonesian puppet traditions, technical studies were carried out. These sorts of studies can identify how an object is made, including what type of pigments, paint binding mediums, and fibers are used to construct the textiles. Conservators and conservation scientists use a variety of tools to examine an art object in the attempt to identify these materials, so they can authenticate and date an object. In the case of the museum’s wayang golek collection, paint samples about the size of a pinhead of all the layers of paint present were collected from two puppets, and cross sections of the samples were analyzed under a microscope to see how many times the puppets had been repainted. The cross sections revealed that some areas on one of the puppets had been overpainted at least four times. The surface visible to the viewer is red; however, the cross section shows that the puppet was originally painted with a white primer followed by a yellow-green color (see photography of cross section above). In another example, the visible surface is pink, but the cross section reveals that this area of the puppet was painted red on at least three different occasions.

Because the puppets had been overpainted, it was necessary to determine what type of paint had been used for the numerous overpainting campaigns. This is important because any conservation treatment carried out on an object must not disrupt, damage, or cause irreversible change to any of the original and historical materials present.

Therefore, the paint samples from the two puppets were further analyzed with two other instrumental analytical techniques, Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (FT-IR)2 and gas-chromatography mass spectroscopy (GC-MS)3 . The combined use of the FT-IR and GC-MS techniques helped to identify coatings, binding mediums, and pigments used in the construction of the puppets.

The results of the analysis carried out on two puppets from the Asian Art Museum’s collection revealed that among the numerous layers, one was a protein binder, another was an oil binder, and a third was a modern acrylic binder. Some areas were coated with a natural resin. The different materials and layers tell us that at some point in the puppets’ lifetime they were overpainted and that the materials used for the overpainting are different from those used during the original manufacture. This information was helpful in understanding condition characteristics and was used to develop an appropriate treatment protocol for the collection. Based on the information obtained through instrumental analysis, the conservation treatments chosen included cleaning dirty surfaces, reattaching lifting flakes of paint with an adhesive that did not disrupt or disturb existing paint layers, securing arms, filling areas of loss in wood and painted surfaces, and toning these areas with pigments. The results of the analysis not only helped conservation learn more about the fabrication and previous care of the museum’s wayang golek collection, but also provided information that has aided the conservation department in the care and preservation of the collection for future generations to enjoy.

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