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Open-access resources on palm leaf conservation

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In the past decade we have seen an increasing number of projects to preserve and to digitize palm leaf manuscripts, especially in countries that historically have a strong palm leaf manuscript tradition. Hand in hand with digitization go registration and cataloguing of the manuscripts, as well as conservation treatment to restore damaged palm leaves and to preserve the original physical manuscripts for future generations alongside the digital images. The conservation of palm leaves is becoming increasingly important as large numbers of palm leaf manuscripts have been discovered in Buddhist temples and private collections in South and Southeast Asia. But also in library and museum collections in the West palm leaf manuscripts that need urgent conservation treatment have come to light. Whereas most library and museum conservators will have access to specialist and academic publications on the conservation of palm leaves, people who work with palm leaf manuscripts and those with a general interest in this material will find open-access resources on this topic useful.

Burmese Buddhist cosmology incised on palm leaves, 19th century.
British Library, Or 15283

A decade ago we published in our very own SEALG Newsletter an article with “Workshop Notes on the Conservation and Stabilization of Palm Leaf Manuscripts” by David Jacobs (SEALG Newsletter 2010). The former British Library conservator describes in the first part how palm leaf manuscripts are made. He then discusses preservation and conservation problems before presenting his experiences with British Library conservation treatments of palm leaves in more detail.

P. Perumal, former conservator at Sarasvti Mahal Library, Thanjavur, discusses in a blog on “Preventive conservation of palm leaf manuscripts” (2013) various factors that contribute to the deterioration of palm leaves. The article highlights the importance and methods of preventive conservation, including indigenous methods of pest management.

An informative short documentary film “Preserving Khmer Manuscript” (2014) was produced in connection with a project of the EFEO-FEMC for the preservation of Khmer manuscripts in Cambodia. It is estimated that only about 2% of the Cambodian literature heritage survived the destruction in the 1970s. The film (in Khmer language with English subtitles) looks at how Khmer palm leaf manuscripts were rediscovered, catalogued, scanned and restored.

The Preservation Lab reports about the examination, preservation and finding a suitable boxing solution for a “Nineteenth Century Buddhist Religious Treatise” (2016) from Burma. In this specific case, a physical surrogate was created for educational purposes to reduce the frequency of handling of the original manuscript. Both the manuscript and the surrogate were then stored in separate custom-made boxes.

An article published by the John Rylands Library looks at “Preserving Palm Leaf – A Sacred Manuscript Tradition” (August 2020) by highlighting some examples from their palm leaf manuscript collection and how they were created. Suggestions for the preservation of these precious manuscripts include storage in a climate controlled environment in acid-free enclosures, respecting the signs of wear, dirt and staining from oil and candles as evidence of their historical use, and minimal intervention to make manuscripts safe for handling, exhibition, digitisation and research while preserving their intangible value as sacred Buddhist objects.

The British Library’s conservation team reported about an interesting experiment to use leaf-casting for the conservation of heavily damaged palm leaves. The article “Magic in Conservation – using leaf-casting on paper and palm leaves” (October 2017) by Iwona Jurkiewicz describes in detail how the method of leaf-casting, which is mostly used in paper conservation, was applied successfully to repair a fragile Tamil manuscript.

Julia Poirier, Book and Paper Conservator at the Chester Beatty Library, writes in her article “Delaminating and fraying fibres: developing an advanced treatment approach for the conservation of a 12th century palm leaf manuscript” (March 2020) about the conservation work carried out on a very rare and fragile Buddhist palm leaf manuscript in Sanskrit language from West Bengal. Of particular interest is her description of a newly developed method to treat delamination of palm leaves.

Doriscat13
Fragment of the Buginese La Galigo epos on scrolled palm leaf (late 19th or early 20th century) . The strokes of palm leaves are sewn together to form one long stroke. Cod.Or. 5475. Image: Courtesy of Leiden University Libraries and KITLV collections

Particularly challenging is the conservation of rolled palm leaf manuscripts because even opening them without damage can be very difficult. The article “Conservation and digitisation of rolled palm leaf manuscripts in Nepal” (2005) by Naoko Takagi, Yoriko Chudo and Reiko Maeda provides details of the conservation, digitisation and safe storage in custom-made archival boxes of 400 rolled palm leaf manuscripts with clay seals housed at the Asa Archives in Kathmandu.

An article in the International Academic Forum’s Journal of Literature and Librarianship on the “Sustainable Preservation of Lanna Palm Leaf Manuscripts Based on Community Participation” (July 2020) written by Piyapat Jarusawat highlights a problem that many temple libraries in Buddhist countries face: the large numbers of palm leaf bundles in these collections, often thousands or even tens of thousands, require a different approach towards conservation which does not rely on a small team of manuscript conservation professionals. The author examines the traditional method of involving Buddhist lay communities in the preservation and conservation of manuscripts.

A talk by Ignatius Payyappilly on “Palm-leaf Manuscripts: The Legacy of Traditional Preservation and Conservation” given at Hamburg University (recorded August 2018) presents traditional methods of palm leaf preservation, including adequate storage, cleaning and oiling, repairing damaged palm leaves, use of natural insect repellents, fungicides and protective cloths and manuscript boxes.

The conservation of birch bark presents similar challenges as that of palm leaf. British Library conservator Elisabeth Randell explains in her article “The Mahārnava, Conservation of a 19th Century Birch Bark Manuscript“(May 2020) how a fragile birch bark manuscript from Kashmir was treated, focusing on how delaminated layers of bark, large tears and cracks were repaired.

For a more in-depth study of palm leaf conservation “A Selective Review of Scholarly Communications on Palm Leaf Manuscripts” (2016) by Jyotshna Sahoo is particularly useful. It encompasses a selective range of researches on palm leaf manuscripts published in academic journals, conference proceedings, commemorated volumes, reports of different projects and case studies that have appeared during a period coverage starting from 1947 to 2013. The literature reviewed is organized into five related themes: Antiquities, types and nature of manuscripts – Process of seasoning and writing over manuscripts – Factors of deterioration, preservation and conservation – Cataloguing, metadata standards and subject access to Manuscripts – Digitization of manuscripts.

Last but not least the Palm Leaf Wiki offers a “Bibliography on palm leaf preservation and conservation” which lists publications up to the year 2014.

Community participation in the preservation of palm leaf manuscripts (wrapping manuscripts with protective cloth) at Wat Sungmen in Phrae, Thailand, 2020. Photo credit: Wat Sungmen Manuscript Temple

 

DREAMSEA: A programme to digitise Southeast Asian manuscripts and to safeguard cultural diversity

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DREAMSEA stands for Digital Repository of Endangered and Affected Manuscripts in Southeast Asia, which is a Programme that strives to preserve the content of manuscripts in the entire region of Southeast Asia by way of digitisation, and to make this content fully and openly accessible online. The Programme is carried out by the Center for the Study of Islam and Society (PPIM) Syarif Hidayatullah Jakarta State Islamic University (UIN) Jakarta, Indonesia, in cooperation with the Centre for the Study of Manuscripts Culture (CSMC), University of Hamburg, Germany. The digital repository is presented in collaboration with the Hill Museum and Manuscripts Library. The Programme is supported by Arcadia, a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin, based in the UK.

Southeast Asia is a region with a high rate of cultural diversity. Since the aim of this Programme is to safeguard this diversity, it accommodates manuscripts written in any script and field of study as long as the manuscripts originate from Southeast Asia. The basic principle in the DREAMSEA Programme is to preserve Southeast Asian manuscripts that are under threat to be damaged or lost (endangered manuscripts), and whose condition already may have been affected by natural/environmental conditions or socio-political circumstances in Southeast Asia (affected manuscripts).

Although the Programme was only initiated in 2017, thousands of manuscript pages have already been digitised and made freely available online. In the first stage, high resolution images of 593 manuscripts containing 20,129 pages have been made available along with the metadata. They originate from three different collections: the legacy of the Kingdom of Buton in Baubau (Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia), the collections of a Muslim community in Kuningan (West Java, Indonesia), and the collection of manuscripts of Buddhist monks in Luang Prabang (Laos). In 2018-2019, DREAMSEA executed fifteen digitisation missions  and managed to safe the contents of 57 collections in eighteen cities in Indonesia, Laos and Thailand. Up to now, around 119,000 manuscript pages have been digitised and subsequently these will be made available to the public in the Programme’s  Repository, which offers search options by country, city/province, collection, project number, title, subject matter, author, language, writing support, and script. Both the quality and quantity of metadata provided for the digitised manuscripts deserve much praise, especially the often very detailed content descriptions and translations of colophons which are extremely useful for carrying out further research.

In addition, the Programme has opened its own Youtube channel of DREAMSEA Manuscripts on which short films document the work that has been carried out to digitise and preserve manuscripts in Indonesia and Laos.

Dreamsea

(Information provided by DREAMSEA)

Digital “resurrection” of lost Lao Ramayana murals

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A groundbreaking project with the aim to digitally replicate the lost Phralak-Phralam (Lao version of the Ramayana) murals at Vat Oub Mong in Vientiane has been under way for several years. The project is being carried out by the Digital Conservation Facility, Laos (DCFL); affiliated since 2003 with the Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS) at Northern Illinois University. DCFL founder Alan Potkin has recently been developing interactive visualization and virtual reality technologies in ecological and cultural conservation for applications in impact assessment, heritage management, museological and site interpretive materials, public participation; and accessible institutional memory for corporations, government agencies, and NGOs.

The historical temple hall at Vat Oub Mong that contained the original murals had been demolished in the year 2000. However, prior to the demolition, photographs were taken of the murals which had been created in 1938. Thanks to this initiative and newly emerging technologies, digital replication of the lost cultural heritage is now possible.
But digital replication is not the only goal of the project – equally important is the replication at Vat Oub Mong (Vientiane) of the demolished Phralak-Phralam murals which was completed in 2011. In addition to this, the original 2,100-page palm leaf manuscript containing the Pralak-Pralam text in Lao tham script has been digitised and is currently being transliterated into modern Lao by the monks at Vat Oub Mong.
Alan Potkin gave talks about this project and its progress at several conferences in the recent years.

An abridged translation of the Phalak-Phralam text together with some photographs of the original murals from the demolished temple can be found on the homepage of the Center for SEA Studies at Northern Illinois University.

Latest news from the project can be found on the Theravada Buddhist Civilizations website.

An English translation of a Phralak-Phralam text found in a manuscript at the Royal Palace in Luang Prabang, together with photographs of the murals at Vat Oub Mong are in Sachchidanand Sahai’s book “Ramayana in Laos. A study in the Gvay Dvorahbi” (published in 1976 by B.R. Publishing corporation, Delhi).

Asian bookbinding traditions

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Asian bookbinding traditions which can be found in the Southeast Asian manuscript cultures as well are the subject of a research paper by Colin Chinnery and Li Yi (International Dunhuang Project).

This research paper combines textual descriptions together with diagrams illustrating binding techniques and photographs of a selection of objects. The aim of the paper is to give a comprehensive introduction to the different kinds of Chinese bookbinding contained in the Dunhuang collections. Included are details about butterfly binding, stitched binding, palm-leaf binding (pothi), whirlwind binding, concertina binding, and wrapped-back binding.

Bookbinding methods found in the Dunhuang collections. Diagram by Li Yi and Colin Chinnery (British Library)

Bookbinding methods found in the Dunhuang collections. Diagram by Li Yi and Colin Chinnery (British Library)

The International Dunhuang Project is a ground-breaking international collaboration to make information and images of all manuscripts, paintings, textiles and artefacts from Dunhuang and archaeological sites of the Eastern Silk Road freely available on the Internet and to encourage their use through educational and research programmes.

The IDP has partner institutions in Beijing, St Petersburg, Kyoto, Berlin, Dunhuang, Paris and Seoul which provide data for and act as hosts to the multilingual website and database.

Much of IDP’s early work focused on conservation and cataloguing, both of which remain core activities. These have been supplemented in the past few years with digitisation, education and research. IDP started digitising the manuscripts in 1997 with the aim of bringing together the collections in virtual space. Its web site went online in October 1998 and allows free access to the IDP DATABASE with high-quality images of the manuscripts and other material, with cataloguing and contextual information. In this way, Silk Road material is becoming increasingly available to academic and general users alike.

Conservation of panoramic photographs of Hong Kong

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Six spectacular photographic panoramas of Hong Kong, taken c. 1900, were  painstakingly conserved by Nicholas Burnett and colleagues at Museum Conservation Services at Duxford, Cambridge, along with one panorama of Macau, one of Canton, and one of Medicine Hat, Alberta, taken in 1913.

The panoramas form part of the impressive photographic collection of the Royal Commonwealth Society Library in Cambridge.

The conservation process was quite complicated and took 21 months. A short report of the project together with photographs taken during the conservation works can be found on the Cambridge University Library Special Collections blog.