Inside Spencer: The KSRL Blog

Conservation Treatment of a Korean Buddhist Sutra, Dae Bangwangbul Hwaeomgyeong (The Sutra of Garland Flower of Great Square and Broad World of Buddha)

March 8th, 2022

The Kenneth Spencer Research Library holds a rare 14th century Korean Buddhist sutra (MS D23) titled, Dae Bangwangbul Hwaeomgyeong (The Sutra of Garland Flower of Great Square and Broad World of Buddha). The sutra is the 45th volume of the eightieth version of the Avatamsaka Sutra translated by Siksananda between 695 and 699 in the Tang dynasty (Eung-Chon Choi, 2003). It is mounted in accordion book format, a practice commonly seen in China, Japan, and Korea (Hsin-Chen Tsai, 2017).

Frontispiece of a 14th century Korean Buddhist sutra titled Dae Bangwangbul Hwaeomgyeong (The Sutra of Garland Flower of Great Square and Broad World of Buddha), gold ink on indigo paper. Call number MS D23. Kenneth Spencer Research Library, The University of Kansas.
Image 1. Frontispiece of the sutra. Call number MS D23. Kenneth Spencer Research Library, The University of Kansas. Click image to enlarge.

The sutra’s structure consists of papers with a width of 101 cm and height of 26.7 cm that are joined by one seam every nine pages with a starch-based adhesive[1]. The sutra has sixty-one pages of text comprising three chapters, and four pages on which is painted the frontispiece. The calligraphy and frontispiece are hand-painted in a metallic media, likely gold, where gold pigment is typically mixed with animal glue as the binding media (Hsin-Chem Tsai, 2017). The outer edges of the text block are also decorated in gold. The heads, chest, and hands of the three Buddhas in the frontispiece are further enhanced with cream, red, blue, and black opaque paint. The verso of the sutra is blank except for inscriptions along the seam of each join labeling each section.

There are four different papers observed throughout the sutra. The text block of the sutra is a double layer of dark blue dyed paper, likely indigo, that is highly burnished. The paper used on the verso of the frontispiece, back cover, and adjacent pages is a different laminated indigo paper. It is not burnished, and the indigo has prominent brush strokes (see Image 2). The paper cover has a white paper core consisting of a few sheets laminated together and is covered with a thin, blue paper. The front cover is decorated with flakes of gold leaf while the back blue paper cover is blank. Fiber identification characterized the furnish (fiber content) of these papers as a paper mulberry or a paper mulberry mixture with either mitsumata or gampi. These fibers are consistent with the known furnish of papers from this period and region.

Verso of first and last pages of a 14th century Korean Buddhist sutra titled Dae Bangwangbul Hwaeomgyeong (The Sutra of Garland Flower of Great Square and Broad World of Buddha). Call number MS D23. Kenneth Spencer Research Library, The University of Kansas.
Image 2. Verso of the first page of text (far left) and the verso of the last three pages of the frontispiece (center and right) showing the difference between the two types of indigo paper. The three pages on the right have prominent brush strokes, whereas the page on the left is darker and heavily burnished. Call number MS D23. Kenneth Spencer Research Library, The University of Kansas. Click image to enlarge.

According to Goryeo dynasty: Korea’s age of enlightenment, 918-1392, the following volumes from this set of Avatamsaka Sutra are extant and share the same style of calligraphy, treatment of the frontispiece, and cover design: Vol. 1 (private collection in Japan), Vol. 4 (Tokugawa Art Museum), Vols. 35 and 36 (Yamato Bunkakan), Vol. 42 (Tsaian-ji, Kobe), and Vol. 78 (The Cleveland Museum of Art). 

The sutra had several structural issues (weak folds, insect damage, old mends that were detaching) and was a priority for examination and treatment to stabilize it for future use. With great thanks to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and its support of a Collaborative Conservation Initiative at KU, there was allocated funding to host a visiting conservator to complete a special week-long project during the grant period. We reached out to Minah Song, a conservator in private practice in the Washington D.C. area, to advise on the development of a treatment plan for this rare object. Read more about Minah’s entire Visiting Conservator Project in the blog post written by Special Collections Conservator, Angela Andres.

Images showing insect and binding damage on a 14th century Korean Buddhist sutra titled Dae Bangwangbul Hwaeomgyeong (The Sutra of Garland Flower of Great Square and Broad World of Buddha). Call number MS D23. Kenneth Spencer Research Library, The University of Kansas.
Image 3. The image on the left shows where adhesive was failing at the join between sections and the presences of white accretions that correlates with the location of the calligraphy on the recto. The image on the right shows insect holes that were once covered by square paper mends. The mends have detached, and adhesive residue remains. Call number MS D23. Kenneth Spencer Research Library, The University of Kansas. Click image to enlarge.
A conservator pointing to damage on a 14th century Korean Buddhist sutra titled Dae Bangwangbul Hwaeomgyeong (The Sutra of Garland Flower of Great Square and Broad World of Buddha). Call number MS D23. Kenneth Spencer Research Library, The University of Kansas.
Image 4. Minah Song pointing to old mends along the top edge of the fold crease. The paper was weak in many places, easy to detach, and the color of the mend did not match the sutra’s paper. Many of the mends were detaching. Call number MS D23. Kenneth Spencer Research Library, The University of Kansas. Click image to enlarge.

After the sutra was examined and the condition issues prioritized, we shared our observations and treatment plan with Elspeth Healey, special collections librarian, who authorized the treatment. Our plan included addressing all necessary mending needs first. If we could tone a good matching paper, then we would also address the most visually distracting mends and overlays to reintegrate the paper margins of the sutra. We toned handmade Korean paper (hanji) using High Flow Golden acrylic paint (indigo/anthraquinone) and Dr. Ph. Martin’s Synchromatic Transparent watercolor (black) diluted with deionized water to mix various blue tones and achieve a good match with the sutra’s burnished indigo paper. The mixture was brush-applied to the hanji and the paper was hung to dry completely.

A conservator at work testing colors to match paper for mending a 14th century Korean Buddhist sutra titled Dae Bangwangbul Hwaeomgyeong (The Sutra of Garland Flower of Great Square and Broad World of Buddha). Call number MS D23. Kenneth Spencer Research Library, The University of Kansas.
Image 5. Testing various mixtures and application methods to tone handmade Korean paper (hanji) to match the indigo paper in the sutra. Kenneth Spencer Research Library, The University of Kansas. Click image to enlarge.

Once the paper was toned, we removed old mends across worm holes that were loose and detaching. We used the new mending paper to reinforce weak fold creases and replace old mends, as needed, and reattached the seams that were coming loose. The treatment overall was kept as minimal as possible with the primary goal of stabilization so that the sutra could be safely handled. Once the new mends and infills were attached with wheat starch paste, some were locally inpainted with Schminke watercolors to match the sutra’s paper tone more closely.

A conservator mending a 14th century Korean Buddhist sutra titled Dae Bangwangbul Hwaeomgyeong (The Sutra of Garland Flower of Great Square and Broad World of Buddha). Call number MS D23. Kenneth Spencer Research Library, The University of Kansas.
Image 6. Attaching a new mend along a fold crease (pictured left). Jacinta Johnson inpainting a mend and overlay with watercolors. Kenneth Spencer Research Library, The University of Kansas. Click image to enlarge.

The conservation treatment of the sutra is now complete. The new mends have better visual integration with the object and allow for the sutra to be safely handled. We would like to extend our sincere thanks to Minah Song for her guidance and expertise on this important project. We would also like to thank Dr. Brian Atkinson, Assistant Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Curator of the Division of Paleobotany at the Biodiversity Institute for the use of his microscope to complete fiber identification. Finally, we would like to thank the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for enabling this collaboration.

Images showing a 14th century Korean Buddhist sutra titled Dae Bangwangbul Hwaeomgyeong (The Sutra of Garland Flower of Great Square and Broad World of Buddha) during and after conservation treatment. Call number MS D23. Kenneth Spencer Research Library, The University of Kansas.
Image 7. Detail image of one of the pages of the sutra during treatment (left) and after treatment (right) with the addition of the new mends and overlays. Kenneth Spencer Research Library, The University of Kansas. Click image to enlarge.

[1] The final section is only five pages long, including the cover, and is 55.8 cm wide. Adhesive was tested with an iodine indicator. The adhesive is likely wheat or rice starch paste.

REFERENCES

Avatamsaka Sutra No. 78. The Cleveland Museum of Art. Collection Entry. https://www.clevelandart.org/art/1994.25.

Baker, Whitney. June 18, 2003. Condition Examination. The Kenneth Spencer Research Library. The University of Kansas Libraries.

Choi, Eung-Chon, and Kumja Paik Kim. 2003. Goryeo dynasty: Korea’s age of enlightenment, 918-1392 ; [in conjunction with the Exhibition Goryeo Dynasty: Korea’s Age of Enlightenment, 918-1392, which was organized by the Asian Art Museum – Chong-Moon Lee Center for Asian Art and Culture, San Francisco, October 18, 2003 through January 11, 2004]. San Francisco, Calif: Asian Art Museum: 126-7.

Tsai, Hsin-Chen, and Tanya Uyeda. 2017. “Line Up, Back to Back: Restoration of a Korean Buddhist Sutra in Accordion Book Format.” Book and Paper Group Annual 36: 75–83.

A Recap of Our Week with Visiting Conservator Minah Song

December 14th, 2021

In October, thanks to the efforts of Mellon Initiative conservator Jacinta Johnson, we realized a long-held dream of hosting a visiting conservator in our lab. Since we moved into this space three and a half years ago, we have been excited about the possibilities our new facility affords – from holding workshops to accommodating researchers, and much more. Of course, we’d barely gotten settled when the pandemic emerged and put these plans on hold. After a period of remote work, followed by returning to work full-time in the lab and getting accustomed to working within covid restrictions, we were ready to take the step of inviting an outside colleague to work with us for a week.

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The grant that supports Jacinta’s work here at Spencer Research Library (SRL) and across Marvin Grove at the Spencer Museum of Art (SMA) includes funding to bring in visiting conservators to work on collections that have been identified as needing special attention. Jacinta arranged for Minah Song, a conservator working in private practice in the Washington, D.C. area, to spend a whole week in the lab. Much of Minah’s time here was spent working with Jacinta to examine, document, and explore treatment options for a rare Korean sutra housed in our special collections (MS D23). Minah also delivered a public lecture on the history and technology of Asian papermaking and its uses for conservation and held an information session on care and handling of Asian materials for SRL and SMA staff. In addition, Minah generously agreed to teach three mini-workshops for conservation lab staff and student employees. After such a long period of isolation and distancing, it was wonderful to interact with another conservator, step away from our routines, and learn something new.

Mellon Initiative conservator Jacinta Johnson and visiting conservator Minah Song examine a rare Korean sutra from Spencer's collection.
Mellon Initiative conservator Jacinta Johnson and visiting conservator Minah Song examine a rare Korean sutra from Spencer’s collection. Call number MS D23. Kenneth Spencer Research Library, The University of Kansas. Click image to enlarge.

For the first mini-workshop, Minah demonstrated friction drying, a method for flattening papers that may be sensitive to moisture or otherwise difficult to flatten, such as tracing paper. Jacinta has been treating drawings on tracing paper from the Mary Huntoon collections at both the SMA and SRL; she and Minah used two of these works to show how friction drying works. The drawings were first humidified in a Gore-Tex® stack, which allows water vapor to gently humidify the objects without direct contact with liquid water. Next the drawings were sandwiched between two sheets of lightly dampened mulberry paper and dried in a blotter stack under pressure for about a week. The process may need to be repeated for very stubborn creases. This method is a great, low-impact option for flattening notoriously fickle tracing paper.

Mellon Initiative conservator Jacinta Johnson and visiting conservator Minah Song demonstrate friction drying, a technique for flattening delicate paper. Kenneth Spencer Research Library, The University of Kansas.
Mellon Initiative conservator Jacinta Johnson and visiting conservator Minah Song demonstrate friction drying, a technique for flattening delicate paper. Kenneth Spencer Research Library, The University of Kansas. Click image to enlarge.

In the next mini-workshop we learned how to do a double-sided lining for very brittle paper items, a technique that Minah perfected when she treated a large collection of fire-damaged documents. While this method should be considered a last option due the difficulty of fully reversing it, it can provide surprising stability for severely weakened papers while still allowing the text or images to be seen. (We used discarded newspaper clippings to practice on.) In this method, very thin kozo tissue is adhered to both sides of the item by applying very dilute wheat starch paste through a layer of Hollytex®, a nonwoven polyester material. The lined object is partially air-dried with the Hollytex® still attached, then dried in a stack overnight, at which point the Hollytex® is removed, and the object returned to the stack to fully dry. We were all surprised by the relative simplicity of the process, considering the fragility of the materials involved, and the results were impressive.

Conservation Services staff and student employees practice a double-sided lining technique taught by visiting conservator Minah Song. Kenneth Spencer Research Library, The University of Kansas.
Conservation Services staff and student employees practice a double-sided lining technique taught by visiting conservator Minah Song. Kenneth Spencer Research Library, The University of Kansas. Click image to enlarge.

For our final mini-workshop, we had the chance to experiment with several types of pre-coated, solvent-set repair tissues. Pre-coated repair tissues usually consist of a thin kozo paper to which a layer of adhesive has been applied and allowed to dry. The coated paper can then be cut to size, reactivated with some type of solvent (usually water or ethanol), and applied to a tear to create a mend. We already use a pre-coated repair tissue prepared with a mixture of wheat starch paste and methycellulose, which is reactivated with water and serves as a good all-purpose repair material. But Minah demonstrated other types of pre-coated papers that offer other possible applications: tissue coated in Klucel™ M and reactivated with ethanol is a good option for documents containing iron gall inks or other water-sensitive media, and tissue coated with Aquazol®, reactivated with water, and set with a heated tacking iron can be an efficient choice for projects with a high volume of needed repairs, tight time constraints, or both.

Visiting conservator Minah Song demonstrates the use of pre-coated repair tissues for Conservation Services staff and student employees. Kenneth Spencer Research Library, The University of Kansas.
Visiting conservator Minah Song demonstrates the use of pre-coated repair tissues for Conservation Services staff and student employees. Kenneth Spencer Research Library, The University of Kansas. Click image to enlarge.

We all greatly enjoyed our week working with and alongside Minah, getting to know her, and benefitting from her willingness to share her time and expertise with us. We now have a new conservation friend, and a wealth of new knowledge to bring to our work on KU’s collections.