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Studies in Conservation
ISSN: 0039-3630 (Print) 2047-0584 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/ysic20
Fusing and refreshing the memory: Conserving a
Chinese lacquered Buddha sculpture in London
Hsin-Hui Hsu & Dean Sully
To cite this article: Hsin-Hui Hsu & Dean Sully (2016) Fusing and refreshing the memory:
Conserving a Chinese lacquered Buddha sculpture in London, Studies in Conservation, 61:sup3,
124-130, DOI: 10.1080/00393630.2016.1227119
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/00393630.2016.1227119
© The International Institute for
Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works
Published online: 15 Dec 2016.
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Supplementary issue paper
Fusing and refreshing the memory:
Conserving a Chinese lacquered
Buddha sculpture in London
Hsin-Hui Hsu1, Dean Sully2
Chung Tai World Museum, Taiwan,
University College London, London, UK
This paper examines the conservation treatment of a lacquered Buddha sculpture undertaken by a Buddhist
conservator as part of a postgraduate heritage conservation training programme in London. This creative
process selects from a mixture of ideas and practices as a specific response to the people, time, and
place of the conservation treatment. Rather than seen as a polarized choice between versions of ‘Eastern’
and ‘Western’approaches, the conservation practice is interpreted though a Buddhist understanding of
the sculpture in relation to the secular requirements of the current owner. The treatment addressed issues
of the physical stability of the object, the reversibility of applied treatments, and the accommodation of
Buddhist concepts of ‘completeness’,‘toplessness’, and ‘no killing’. The result was a Buddha sculpture
made into a ‘plausible’conservation object that represents the compromises necessary at the time and
place of the conservation intervention.
Keywords: Lacquered Buddha, Conservation treatment, Buddhist concepts, Compromise
The discourse of Buddhist heritage conservation is
often polarized between monolithic conceptions of
East versus West and religious versus secular polemics
(Hall, 2002;Malkogeorgou, 2012). This can be seen in
the juxtaposition of western conservation principles of
minimal intervention and reversibility with the maxi-
mizing concept of Buddhist sculptures in Asia, which
have traditionally been cared for by repairing all
damage and loss in order to maintain the religious sig-
nificance of the sculpture (Wijesuriya, 2005;Hsu,
The primary purpose of sacred images in not to
give aesthetic enjoyment, but to serve as focusing
points for the spirit. (Boner, 1990)
This juxtaposition is also evident in the selection of
materials and techniques used in conservation treat-
ments, as a choice is often made between science-
based approaches, including the use of synthetic con-
servation polymers, and the adaptation of traditional
skills and materials used in the original manufacturing
processes of the sculpture (Chase, 1985;Minney, 2008;
Hsu, 2014). The skills and practices used in traditional
restoration work are often considered to be intangible
cultural property, since they embody specific cultural
memory, practice, and context. The importance of
conserving intangible cultural property is generally
Conservation practice seeks to understand and
preserve tangible cultural property, whereas con-
servation ethics seek to understand and preserve
intangible cultural property. (Rivers, 2005)
When considering a specific case study, these divisive
categories can be dissolved and the particularities of
the conservation moment can be seen to inform conser-
vation decisions that are taken in response to a specific
set of time and place circumstances (Sully, 2015). This
paper will present the conservation process of a
Chinese Buddha sculpture, conserved as part of train-
ing at the Institute of Archaeology, University
College London (UCL), UK. It can be seen as a selec-
tion of western conservation process and practices,
Buddhist tradition, and memory of Asian lacquered
wood sculpture, from the perspective of the authors,
one a Buddhist nun training as a conservator.
The Buddha statue
The conservation object, a lacquered sitting Buddha
on a solid wood substrate, was sent to the Buddhist
© The International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works 2016
This is an Open Access article distributed under the t erms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License (http://creativecommons.org/Licenses/by-
nc/4.0/), which permits unrestricted non-commercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Received October 2015; revised paper accepted August 2016
DOI 10.1080/00393630.2016.1227119 Studies in Conservation 2016 VOL. 61 SUPPLEMENT 3
Correspondence to: Hsin-Hui Hsu, Chung Tai World Museum, 1 Chung Tai
Road, Puli Town, Nantou County 54544, Taiwan.
conservator during her training on the MSc
Conservation for Archaeology and Museums pro-
gramme at UCL (Fig. 1). Before fully researching
the object, and prior to consulting the owner, the con-
servation treatment started with the standard process
of investigating the object through physical
The style of the Buddha, sitting on a flat pedestal, is
similar to Chinese sculptures from the Ming Dynasty
(CE 1368–1911) or later. The Buddha’s hair is formed
in round twisted buns, with a gilded area on the top
of the head, also known as ushnisha in Sanskrit, repre-
senting Buddha’s 32 marks. The Buddha is clothed in
a carved low-collared robe over an inner robe with a
knot around his abdomen. He sits in a cross-legged
posture, with a Dhyana Mudra gesture, which rep-
resents deep meditation. On the back of the sculpture
there is a small wooden lacquered plug, which can
be removed to reveal an empty round cavity inside
the carving. There is evidence of a mud or clay
filling around the plug, probably used for sealing it
into position (Fig. 2). In some Buddhist traditions,
treasures or written wishes are placed inside the back
cavity of a solid sculpture, or inside the internal
space of a hollow sculpture, to show respect to the
Buddha. For example, the conservation of a bronze
Tibetan Buddha sculpture at the Victoria and Albert
Museum, London, UK, revealed the presence of draw-
ings of Buddha and Buddhist teachers inside the sculp-
ture (Hall, 2002).
An initial investigation of areas of surface damage
via cross-sections of the surface layers suggested that
multilayered lacquer coatings had been applied onto
ground layers over a wood substrate (Fig. 3). The
remains of gilding could be seen on the Buddha’s
skin areas, i.e. the face, crown, hands, feet, etc.
Condition and treatment proposal
As part of the physical examination, the vulnerabilities
of the object were identified as:
•the presence of cracks that compromised the struc-
tural stability of the sculpture;
•alteration and discolouration of old repairs that
adversely affected the stability and aesthetics of the
•large areas of unstable surface decoration that were
susceptible to further loss;
•lost areas of surface decoration, particularly gilding
and broken areas on the hair ‘buns’;
Figure 1 The Buddha sculpture before treatment. Image:
Figure 2 The cavity in the back of the Buddha underneath
the removable plug. Image: ©Hsinhui Hsu.
Figure 3 Cross-section of the surface decoration imaged in
visible light. Image: ©Hsinhui Hsu.
Hsu and Sully Fusing and refreshing the memory
Studies in Conservation 2016 VOL. 61 SUPPLEMENT 3S3-125
•cracking and delamination of the decorative surface
were evidence of the sensitivity of the sculpture to
relative humidity (RH) changes.
A treatment proposal was developed to address con-
cerns for the physical stability of the sculpture (Hsu,
2013). This included the stabilization of structural
cracks and surface lacquer layers, and cleaning and
removal of the old repairs. The proposal was discussed
with the owner of the statue to establish the expec-
tations of the conservation process. This identified
the object as a souvenir from the owner’s travels that
reflected a memory and expression of past experiences.
Although largely kept within a domestic and secular
context, the conservator was given a degree of
freedom to approach the object’s treatment from her
perspective as a Buddhist nun and a conservation
Within this physical evaluation of the context of the
conservation treatment in a material-based conserva-
tion framework, other concerns of the Buddhist con-
servator were also considered. The Buddhist concept
that images of the Buddha should be venerated in a
complete form and in perfect condition were discussed
between the owner and the conservation student.The
concept of ‘completeness’has a long tradition in
Buddhist thought and is recorded in many Buddhist
scriptures (Taisho, 1932a). The application of this
idea can also been seen in ancient Buddhist heritage.
One example is the giant standing Buddha sculpture
from Northern Zhou Dynasty at the Chung Tai
Museum in Taiwan. The scripts around the pedestal
of this Buddhist sculpture record that there at least
two restoration projects were undertaken after the
sculpture was originally manufactured in CE 562
(Chung Tai Museum, 2009).
At beginning of the interventive conservation treat-
ment and associated decision-making, the owner’s
wishes and the context of the object being treated by
a conservator/religious practitioner were considered
commensurate with each other. This allowed the con-
servator to consider a range of possibilities in the
design of the treatment. This process echoes
material-based conservation incorporating ‘value-
based’and ‘people-based’approaches previously
described by Sully (2007).
Deteriorated old repairs were removed, as they had
become distorted and detached from the cracks that
they were intended to fill. The old fill material was
mechanically removed using a scalpel and electrical
cutting wheel. In some areas where old repairs could
not be removed completely due to the risk of
damage to the decorative surface and wood substrate
of the object, they were reduced as much as possible
and left in situ.
The structural cracks represented a severe risk to the
stability of the object. Most of these cracks were
associated with the boundaries between the jointed
sections of the wooden substrate (Fig. 4). Infilling
these cracks was therefore a significant part of the
practical intervention required to stabilize the object.
The properties of minimal shrinkage and a balance
between strength and flexibility were required when
selecting suitable filling materials: the higher the
strength, the lower the flexibility (Down et al., 1996).
Preliminary testing of some polymers used in fill
materials was undertaken (Tables 1and 2). These
suggested that in relation to bending resistance,
50 ( polyvinyl acetate) was the best choice.
B30H (polyvinyl butyral) was one of the
better-performing polymers for shrinkage resistance.
B 72 (ethyl methacrylate co-polymer), com-
monly used in conservation, did not offer significantly
better properties of shrinkage and stress resistance
B30H and Mowilith
50 and Hxtal
Figure 4 The severe crack along the waist of the Buddha
sculpture. This is the main joint between two sections of
wooden blocks, which were joined prior to the figure being
carved. Image: ©Hsinhui Hsu.
Table 1 Comparative strength and shrinkage of adhesives
(1 is high)
(1 is high)
3% Klucel G in
15% Mowital B30H in
40% Paraloid B-72 in
30% Mowilith 50
Hxtal NYL-1 2 None/negligible
Polymers were applied to two partly overlapped wooden
spatulas and tested by upward bending with both hands from
both ends, and results compared empirically. Shrinkage was
compared by visual inspection from and wet and dried
Hsu and Sully Fusing and refreshing t he memory
Studies in Conservation 2016 VOL. 61 SUPPLEMENT 3S3-126
epoxy adhesive) samples were much stronger than that
B30H —when force was applied to the
spatulas, the adhesives were sufficiently strong that the
spatulas themselves began to deform, rather than
the adhesive. Thus, they were considered too strong to
be used as a filling material on this object. Mowital
B30H was selected as the binder for the fills used on
Once the areas of old deteriorated repairs had been
removed, the cracks were filled with pigmented filler
composed of 20% w/v Mowital
B30H in industrial
methylated spirit (IMS) bulked with calcium carbon-
ate, glass microballoons, and fumed silica. The pro-
portion was approximately 1:1:0.5:0.5 Mowital
solution: calcium carbonate: glass microballoons:
fumed silica. This was intended to provide structural
support and fill the cracks.
The three different particulate materials used in the
B30H filler —hollow microballoons, solid
calcium carbonate, and fumed silica, were added to
provide different properties in the fill. The hollow
and solid structures provide different resistance to
external force and, therefore, the response of the fill
to movement in the surrounding wood. In a series of
practical experiments, the fillers with microballoons
provided better flexibility under tensile testing than
fills containing calcium carbonate or fumed silica,
while the fillers with calcium carbonate or fumed
silica tolerated greater compression stress than those
with microballoons (Hsu, 2014).
During the treatment, the experience of using the
B30H solution in IMS for the fill suggested
that it dried too quickly during application. Where
extraction is available and polar solvents are unsuita-
B30HH ( polyvinyl butyral) in xylene
would be a suitable alternative (McSharry et al., 2011).
Although the Mowital
B30H filler was chosen for
the fills, the crack between the two separate sections of
body of the Buddha and the base pedestal (Fig. 5)was
filled using Araldite
2020 (dibutyl phthalate, bisphe-
nol-A-epichlorhydrin epoxy) to which calcium car-
bonate, glass microballoons, and fumed silica were
added. The selection of this fill material arose after a
discussion between the conservator and the owner, in
which effective adhesion between the pedestal and
the figure was a principal concern in the stability of
the sculpture. Ideally, epoxy used as a filler in this
way would be isolated from the original surface with
a resoluble adhesive (Podmaniczky, 1998;Ellis &
Heginbotham, 2002). However, in this case, as it was
not possible to apply an isolating layer into the
narrow gaps and cracks, the adhesives were injected
directly into the target spaces.
Areas of delaminating lacquer surface were consoli-
dated with 5–10% w/v Paraloid
B-72 in xylene, with
pressure applied to the surface using the shimbari
method (Fig. 6)(Bainbridge et al., 2015). Xylene
was selected as the solvent used for consolidation as
it is an efficient solvent for Paraloid
B-72 and is
less likely to swell or blanch the lacquer surface
(McSharry et al., 2011). It has a slower evaporation
Figure 6 The use of the shimbari technique to support areas
of lifting surface decoration during consolidation.
Image: ©Hsinhui Hsu.
Table 2 Results of the hand bending test on potential
3% Klucel G w/vin
<1 Broke before
15% Mowital B30H
w/v in IMS
40% Paraloid B-72 w/v
in 50:50 acetone/
30% Mowilith 50 w/v
40 Wood spatula
Hxtal NYL-1 19 Wood spatula
Figure 5 Detail of the area where the old repairs that
attached the sculpture to the pedestal had failed. Image:
Hsu and Sully Fusing and refreshing the memory
Studies in Conservation 2016 VOL. 61 SUPPLEMENT 3S3-127
rate than acetone or IMS, which allowed sufficient
time to set up the shimbari sticks during the appli-
cation process. After the consolidant had been
applied to areas of delaminating surface (identified
as unsupported and flexing when probed with a
wooden tool) a silicone rubber separating layer was
applied to prevent the softening block from adhering
to the lacquer surface, with sufficient sticks added to
apply pressure to the area (Fig. 6). Excess consolidant
was removed afterwards with xylene.
Refreshing Buddhist memory
The treatment process to this stage —physical exam-
ination, condition assessment, treatment proposal,
comparative testing of potential conservation
materials, and the selection of modern conservation
polymers —reflected a materials-based conservation
process using western approaches/materials.
The Buddhist conservator, however, standing before
lacquered Buddha sculpture, wished to introduce
Asian materials into this treatment process as a key
aspect of this particular treatment was to incorporate
both Western and Asian conservation principles. The
owner and the conservator discussed the value of
regilding, recoating with lacquer, and polishing the
surface of the Buddha sculpture.
Asian lacquer (primarily containing urushiol from
sap collected from Toxicodendron vernicifluum) has a
long history of use as a coating for wooden Buddhist
sculptures and was considered suitable for use with
this lacquer object (Shimaguchi, 2002;Rivers, 2005;
Heginbotham et al., 2008). The use of lacquer in con-
solidation or recoating lacquer surfaces can strengthen
a light-damaged lacquer surface and these processes
are known as urushi-gatame and suri-urushi, respect-
ively, in Japan. The urushi-gatame process involves
the application of a layer of diluted Asian lacquer
onto light-damaged lacquer followed by removal of
excess lacquer from the surface. The net result of
urushi-gatame is to consolidate and stabilize the
surface with minimal change to gloss and the appear-
ance of age (Yamashita & Rivers, 2011). Suri- urushi
involves the application of lacquer to the surface and
increases gloss. Since lacquer is a cross-linking
polymer the treatment is irreversible, whichever
process is used. As the main intent of the lacquer treat-
ment for this sculpture was to improve appearance,
suri-urushi was selected for the treatment.
The addition of an irreversible material, such as
lacquer, to an historic surface rather than using resolu-
ble photochemically stable conservation polymers
(such as Paraloid
B-72 or Laropal
A81 —an alde-
hyde resin) was considered carefully. In the case of his-
toric lacquer with a light-damaged surface, it is
unlikely that any polymer (resoluble or not) applied
to consolidate the very fragile surface could be
removed at a later date without damaging the original
surface (Yamashita & Rivers, 2011).
Buddha’s gilded skin
Gilded decoration on the Buddha’s skin is a common
feature of Buddhist sculptures, which can be attributed
to Buddhist scriptures that refer to the Buddha’s body
as being as shiny as gold (Taisho, 1932a). This conti-
nuing tradition can be seen in the practice of
Buddhists in many Asia countries, where gold leaf
offerings are a means of venerating Buddha sculptures
when visiting Buddhist temples (Taisho, 1932b).
On this sculpture, the gilding had largely been lost
as a result of purposeful disfiguring abrasion, rather
than gradual erosion due to long term wear.
Regilding was considered by the conservator to
restore the lost gilded areas of skin, to reflect the
Buddhist desire for Buddha’s body to be as shiny as
gold. However, with limited time and resources avail-
able, it was agreed with the owner to regild only the
Buddha’s topknot and to recoat the skin areas with
lacquer, rather than regild them. The topknot was
given priority because it also symbolizes another
virtue of the Buddha, ‘toplessness’, which reflects the
Buddhist practice of showing respect toward all senti-
ent beings (Taisho, 1932b). Regilding work was
carried out by firstly applying the gilding lacquer to
the target area then gently laying gold leaf onto it
with a very soft brush when the gilding lacquer was
about 80–90% cured.
The application of a surface lacquer coating was an
attempt to improve the appearance of the Buddha’s
skin in areas where the surface had been disrupted
by abrasion. The surface was brushed with a single
application of 50% w/v raw (unprocessed) lacquer in
The lacquer-coated sculpture was then enclosed in a
temporary chamber with a reservoir of moisture to
raise the relative humidity to about 60–70% RH, as
elevated RH is required for the lacquer to cure. If
this treatment were to be repeated, Shellsol
an aromatic hydrocarbon, would be chosen as the
lacquer diluent (Coueignoux & Rivers, 2015). Note
that Asian lacquer is an allergen and that a risk assess-
ment should be undertaken and a safe system of work
The sculpture was enclosed at this elevated RH for
four days, until the surface reached a touch-dry con-
dition. As the intention of the treatment was not to
produce a very glossy surface, the touch-dry suri-
urushi surface was wiped with a cotton swab dam-
pened with white spirits. White spirits was chosen in
preference to the traditional oil polishing process to
avoid leaving non-volatile oil residues on the object’s
surface. This process resulted in a surface with a sof-
tened sheen, rather than high gloss, which was
Hsu and Sully Fusing and refreshing t he memory
Studies in Conservation 2016 VOL. 61 SUPPLEMENT 3S3-128
considered by the conservator to be more visually
compatible with the condition of the rest of the
When the conservation intervention was nearly
complete, with the consent of the owner, a Buddhist
blessing was written and placed inside the cavity in
the back of the sculpture by the conservator (Fig. 7).
The note was written on a Chinese Hsuan paper,
which is specially dyed yellow with huang-bo (derived
from Cortex phellodendri), a Chinese medicine with
insect repellent properties (World Health
Organization, 2009). The selection of this dye material
stemmed from one of the most important Buddhist
disciplines, the ‘no killing’principle (Taisho, 1932c).
A Buddhist would prefer to encourage insects to
leave infested Buddhist sculptures, and allow time for
them to do so, rather than kill them. This action
sought to address the context of the object as a
Buddha sculpture. The blessing inscription referred
to the wish that the conservation work would benefit
all sentient beings. The wood plug that covered the
cavity was sealed with a traditional adhesive known
as mugi urushi in Japan, which is a paste made from
raw (unprocessed) lacquer and flour.
Conclusion: the plausible object
At the completion of the conservation treatment, the
Buddha sculpture had a relatively complete appear-
ance (Fig. 8). The old discoloured repairs had largely
been removed, or were less evident, the large open
cracks have been filled and disguised, and the loose
areas of detaching surface had been stabilized. These
changes ensured the suitability of the sculpture for
the owner’s intended use. More significantly, the con-
servation treatment had aimed to fuse ideas and
materials from both western and eastern conserva-
tion/restoration practice. The treatment has accom-
modated both materials and methods that are
commonly seen in science-based conservation and
those encountered in traditional practice in Asia.
This conservation treatment developed from a train-
ing process that framed the theoretical expectations of
the conservation approach. This was challenged in
relation to the realities of the conservation object,
various demands from the object’s owner, and the con-
servator’s specific cultural insight into the Buddhist
context in which the object is valued and understood.
The outcomes of the conservation process can be
justified as a balance between time and place of the
conservation treatment and the participants. In this
sense, the secular nature of conservation practice,
materials, and techniques were balanced with the reli-
gious nature of keeping sculptures complete, and with
some key Buddhist principles, i.e. ‘no killing’, showing
respect to others, and making offerings and wishes for
others, not for oneself. This process has made the
Buddha sculpture into a plausible conservation
object that represents the compromises necessary at
the time and place of the conservation moment.
Rather than conforming to a reified search for immu-
table truth and authenticity guided by rigid theoretical
constructs, we can conceive of the product of conser-
vation as residing in an object that is a merely plaus-
ible. The processes need to be justified to ensure that
they remain relevant to the prevailing cultural
Figure 7 Detail showing the placing of a Buddhist wish
inscription inside the rear cavity of the Buddha sculpture by
the conservator. Image: ©Hsinhui Hsu.
Figure 8 The Buddha sculpture after treatment. Image:
Hsu and Sully Fusing and refreshing the memory
Studies in Conservation 2016 VOL. 61 SUPPLEMENT 3S3-129
context that arises each time that an object is con-
served. In this process, the diverse significances of
this Buddha sculpture were investigated and made
visible, in order for a selection of significances to be
retained, maintained, and enhanced. This has further-
more refreshed and regained aspects of the cultural
memory of Buddha sculptures: to recollect the virtue
of the Buddha and fulfil everyone’s needs, including
that of the conservator who treated the object.
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