A Conservator Abroad: Paper Conservation in Japan

Conservation training occurs around the world on a regular basis—have a peek at one of our conservators learning traditional Japanese conservation techniques to help inform modern approaches to paper conservation.

Nearly two years ago, I first heard of a course on the conservation of Japanese paper co-organized by ICCROM, the cultural heritage arm of UNESCO, and the Tokyo National Research Institute for Cultural Properties (also known in Japanese as “Tobunken”). Over three weeks, the course offered a first-hand look at the traditional Japanese conservation techniques, materials, and approaches that inform modern paper conservation and which are taught in conservation training programs around the world. I determined to apply for the 2017 iteration of the course, and was thrilled to be accepted as one of ten participants from all over the world, including the Czech Republic, Latvia, Argentina, the Philippines, Israel, Greece, Australia, and China. Beginning at the end of August 2017 and continuing through the middle of September, we enjoyed an assortment of lectures, demonstrations, and practical work sessions.

Practical work

Much of modern paper conservation practice derives directly from traditional Japanese mounting techniques for their art forms on paper, such as paintings and calligraphy in various media. The most fundamental elements of this ancient practice are the use of cooked wheat starch paste as an adhesive and Japanese paper as a repair material. Our practical work sessions highlighted these two aspects of paper conservation by returning to their roots—each participant mounted a page from a printed Japanese book into a hand scroll. Each step was demonstrated by our expert practical instructors before we returned to our workbenches and practiced the techniques: cleaning and flattening the artwork; filling missing areas occasioned by insect damage; reinforcing areas that are likely to crease or crack when rolled with narrow strips of paper (called orefuse); applying various linings to strengthen and support the art; and fabricating the other elements of the scroll, including an indigo-dyed cover, a tail border paper that prevents the artwork from being too tightly rolled, and the wooden rod which the scroll rolls around.

Practical exercises were complemented by in-depth lectures on the science of pastemaking (itself accompanied by a grueling thirty minutes of stirring to achieve the right paste properties!), characteristics and identification of various Japanese papers, the making and maintenance of traditional brushes, and the proper care and handling of folding screens and hanging scrolls.

Study tour

While the first and third weeks were primarily concerned with our practical work sessions at Tobunken’s premises in Tokyo, during the second week we traveled in central Japan to visit the cities of Nagoya, Mino, and Kyoto. Along our route, we visited various conservation studios, tool and material shops, and historical sites, all to give us opportunities to interact with cultural heritage in a Japanese setting.

A true highlight of our travels was visiting Minotakekami Kobo, a traditional workshop specializing in Japanese Mino paper, named after its location, which has been prized for 1300 years and is designated a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage asset. After a demonstration and explanation of the process, a few of us, including me, were invited to try our hand (with assistance) at making a sheet of the Mino paper. It was thrilling to see and participate in making the paper, and the workshop was generous enough to gift me the sheet I made.

Our time in Kyoto also included a self-directed day, which permitted us to see some of Kyoto’s stunning cultural heritage, and even see preservation work-in-action at some of the sites. The stunning views of Kyoto from the picturesque Buddhist temple Kiyomizu-dera were matched by the massive scaffolding in place to stabilize the ancient main hall of the temple complex; the golden villa Ginkaku-ji surrounded by electronic concert equipment raised questions of the interplay between the needs of cultural heritage artifacts and the practical needs of a modern business that must financially sustain itself; and the magnificent 1,000 wooden statues of the bodhisattva Kannon in Sanjusangen-do temple seemed all the more precious for the care being taken by conservators as the sculptures were carefully cleaned and assessed for damage.


The entire group at Minotakekami Kobo, including our course leader, the Suzukis and their employees, and the staff and fellows of Tobunken. Image produced by the Tokyo National Research Institute for Cultural Properties.

Observing instruction around the low, lacquered table as the cutting of orefuse reinforcement strips is demonstrated. Image courtesy of William Bennett.

Carefully applying paste to the edges of a loss before placing a fill, in an early practice session. Image courtesy of William Bennett.

Applying the narrow orefuse reinforcement strips with the aid of tweezers and a bamboo spatula. Image produced by the Tokyo National Research Institute for Cultural Properties.

Attaching the roller rod to the handscroll using shaped bamboo tools. Image courtesy of William Bennett.

Our very first practical work session involved learning the Japanese method of making wheat starch paste, cooked in massive quantities and stirred for half an hour with wooden poles—a grueling task historically assigned to apprentices. Image courtesy of William Bennett.

A wide variety of conservation brushes, made with different natural fibers and shapes for specific purposes. Image courtesy of William Bennett.

Learning to properly handle hanging scrolls, including the use of specialized tools to hang the artwork. Image courtesy of William Bennett.

Waiting in line to embark on a bullet train at Tokyo Station, preparing to depart for the study tour after a week of learning and practice. Image courtesy of William Bennett.

Learning to make Mino paper with the Suzukis assisting me on each side, sharing the weight of the heavy wooden mould. Image produced by the Tokyo National Research Institute for Cultural Properties.

Kiyomizu-dera Buddhist temple, looking out over the modern cityscape of Kyoto. Image courtesy of William Bennett.

The Golden Pavilion of Kinkaku-ji, a striking example of ancient Kyoto architecture. Image courtesy of William Bennett.

One of the perks of traveling to Japan was visiting old friends, who took me to the seashore and to visit the Kamakura Daibutsu, a massive bronze Buddha that survived the destruction of the temple hall around it. Image courtesy of William Bennett.

The final fruits of our labors—the completed handscroll, wrapping paper, my handmade Mino paper, and a stab-bound Japanese binding holding samples of the materials we used in fabricating the scroll. Image courtesy of William Bennett.

The course participants at the Tokyo Skytree, a chance to gather together before our departure and to see the city spread out before us. Image courtesy of William Bennett.

The frenetic scramble of Shibuya, emblem of modern Japan. Image courtesy of William Bennett.

All ten participants in our hotel lounge, gathered on our last night in Tokyo to exchange farewells and wish each other the best. Image courtesy of William Bennett.

International experience

I trained as a conservator abroad, and was fortunate to have several opportunities to observe conservation in practice in different settings across Europe. Tobunken’s course in Tokyo provided not only a window into the practice of conservation in another area of the world, but a look at the roots of my own paper conservation knowledge. Learning from the source was a truly invaluable chance to deepen my understanding of the materials and techniques I use on a daily basis at the Archives. In addition, meeting other conservators from around the world was a priceless opportunity to learn from a variety of professional traditions, and share perspectives on cultural heritage and treatment of paper-based collections.

While the majority of my work is on Western paper, I was encouraged throughout the course to assess the applicability of what I was learning of the Japanese conservation approach to my own practice. I naturally do not mount archival documents onto handscrolls, but mend paper on a daily basis and have occasion to provide linings for stability and support (in fact, I have two projects in process that will both make use of my improved lining proficiency). And, should the need to care for Japanese or Asian artifacts in the future, I have the foundational expertise to see me through.

The seamless blend of tradition and modernity in Japanese culture is paralleled in Japanese conservation: thousands of years of ancient practices and artifacts coexist with modern innovations and technologies. In a similar way, having absorbed so much knowledge of the Japanese conservation tradition, I now can blend what I have learned with my previous skillset and go forward, better prepared to care for cultural heritage under my charge.

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