Behind the Scenes at the DAM

How to Care for Japanese Scrolls and Screens, Part 2 of 2

In part one of this series, we went over the parts of scrolls and screens and discussed their susceptibilities. Now it’s time to discuss how to examine and clean them.

Though they provide protection of the painted imagery or calligraphy, scrolls and screens require utmost care when handling, viewing, and storing. Periodic examination is a sound preventive measure for ensuring the well-being of your scroll or screen. 

But be careful. Vulnerabilities to a scroll include formation of creases as well as abrasions to media from repeated rolling and unrolling. Creases may also form as a result of squeezing the scroll or tying the cord too tightly. Surface dents occur when there is inadequate support while handling. Bubbling within the surface—most often apparent on the backside—is due to improper mounting procedures and can be exacerbated by repeated rolling and unrolling. Due to their largely hollow core, screens are susceptible to tears and punctures.

Due to the potential complexities involved, scrolls and screens should be handled by two people working together. When examining a scroll or screen, it is important that your work area be adequate in terms of space and lighting as well as clean and clear of clutter, liquids, and pens. Pen marks can easily and irreparably transfer from an adjacent surface to artworks. Dirt and sweat can transfer to and mar paper, silk, wood, metal, and lacquer. For this reason, cotton or nitrile gloves are recommended, especially when handling lacquer components.

 

In order to prevent accidental abrasions or other physical damages, remove jewelry from your hands and wrists and roll up your sleeves. Employ slow and deliberate movement when unrolling a scroll or unfolding a screen. This will ensure optimum care in handling and invite thorough observation. Scrolls require a flat space. Clean beanbag type weights incrementally spaced along the edges are needed as you unroll the scroll. When rolling a scroll, employ moderate uniform tension, so that the scroll aligns evenly along the ends. Futai should not be rolled into the scroll but rather folded to the side in order to avoid causing them to curl.

Once the screen or scroll is in place, look for surface anomalies in the paper, silk, and media. For hanging scrolls, also inspect the cord and fasteners. The metal fasteners affixed to the top stave need to be secure and stable in order to support the weight of the scroll on the wall hook. In addition the cord should be intact and free of thinning, losses, and fraying. Wide scrolls need to have two or more sections of cord attached to the stave. This will ensure that the overall weight can be appropriately distributed and supported. If futai are present, inspect their securement to the stave. Also, gently check the securement of the jiku to the bottom dowel. They should be snug in place.

If you discover the surface of your scroll or screen needs to be cleaned, you can safely do so using a soft, natural fiber brush such as a hake brush. Do not use commercial cleaning products or abrasive materials.

If it is obvious that a scroll or screen is compromised by tears, punctures, appreciable bubbling, severe and/or repeated breaks and creases, delamination or separation between layers, or active flaking or losses of the media, please contact a conservator who specializes in the conservation of Asian paintings for assistance and consideration of next steps.  The multilayered nature of scrolls and screens makes repair inherently complicated and thus requires a specific skill set for conservation treatment. 

For attending to lacquer elements, please refer to the blog post, “The Craft and Care of East Asian Lacquer.”

Image credit: Nakabayashi Chikkei, Travelers in Mountain Landscape, screen, Edo period, Japan.  Denver Art Museum: Gift of John and Celeste Fleming, 1996.285.1.

Sarah Melching is the Silber Director of Conservation at the Denver Art Museum. Sarah has been at the DAM since 2008.