Sun, Apr 06, 2003 - Page 17 News List

Covering up the wounds of time

Repairing and maintaining the vast collection of the National Palace Museum is a job that doesn't get much publicity, but serves an invaluable role in preserving Taiwan's cultural heritage

By Vincent Lin  /  STAFF REPORTER

Han dynasty drinking vessel.

PHOTO: CHIANG YING-YING, TAIPEI TIMES

Twenty-two years is just a blink of the eye in the life of a 2,400-year-old bronze vessel made during China's Warring States (475-221BC) period. But for Yang Yuan-chyuan (楊源泉), head of the antique preservation and maintenance section at the National Palace Museum, this period accounts for a large chunk of his 30-year career restoring ancient artifacts.

Yang has been working on this pot, which is decorated with hunting motifs, for two decades, and although the exterior seems to be perfectly restored, this "antique doctor" seems unwilling to let is go.

"This is a time-honored pot. It was seriously damaged when sent for restoration in 1971. What we saw actually was 26 pieces. After four months of work, the repair work was roughly done."

But Yang's work goes beyond just putting the pieces together again.

"The walls of the pot are only 0.15cm thick. It is decorated with scenes of a battle between humans and animals, executed with great sophistication. The material shows signs of age, which is why I have kept it with me for study."

The 61-year-old Yang takes the vessel from a stainless steel cabinet next to his work table.

According to Yang, bronze vessels used to be repaired using welding, but no matter how skilled the work, it was not easy to erase weld marks completely, nor could the patterns be joined perfectly. The textures and colors would also differ.

These days, the use of polymer adhesives to piece together fragments has improved the quality of restoration work, leaving surface textures and colors unchanged.

Yang develops a special relationship with some of the artifacts that he works on, just as ties develop between patients and their doctors.

Another "case study" that is particularly close to Yang's heart is a porcelain vessel of uncertain age with three openings. The lip of one mouth was broken by the Emperor Xuan Zong (宣統) [of the Qing dynasty], who ordered it fixed, but it was left unattended in a storeroom with a notice: "The superior broke it and handed it over to the subordinates. Sept. 24, the 12th year of Xuan Zong." Since traveling from Beijing to Taipei, it has finally been restored by Yang.

Yang, who holds a diploma in chemistry from Chung Yuan Christian University, has worked as a restoration artist at the National Palace Museum for the last 35 years. This unit, dubbed the museum's "antiques hospital," has only eight employees with expertise from different fields -- chemistry, physics, biology and art.

Since natural and man-made damage inevitably affects the more than 600,000 antiques housed in the museum, their "illnesses" depends for treatment on these antique doctors who are equipped with professional knowledge in science, an artist's perspectives and the delicate touch of a craftsman.

When an artifact is "hospitalized," it first has to undergo an all-round checkup. An examination of its exterior with the naked eye is the first step, followed by closer inspection with a magnifier or an electron microscope. An X-ray machine is used to inspect the interior structure and analyze the production method. Due to the difficulty of acquiring the same materials from which the original was made, every attempt is made to use original fragments to reassemble the vessel; only then will extraneous materials be used to build up the rest of the vessel.

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