CONSERVATION OF CHINESE SHADOW FIGURES: INVESTIGATIONS INTO THEIR MANUFACTURE, STORAGE, AND TREATMENT
In the 20th century, especially between 1920 and 1970, shadow puppetry in China went through dramatic transformations. Plastic sheets replaced the fine skin puppets, and synthetic colors supplanted the natural dyes. Combined with cruder cutting techniques, the effect was cheap and represented a sad departure from the tradition of the elegant, older shadow puppets. Communist ideology became a dominant theme for shadow troupes so that content within the dramas changed as well. After the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) ended, village troupes began to perform traditional dramas again, using puppets that were 100 to 200 years old (Berliner 1986). Even with this rebirth, the popularity of this theater has suffered in the shadow of modern film and performance.
An interview with an old shadow puppeteer in Beijing in the 1930s concerning the state of the theater reveals his beliefs concerning the future of shadow theater in China:
We produce no plays in terms of present day life. Those who love the shadows, it seems, love also the glorious past. Young people and women are now going to theaters and motion pictures. Only four companies are now operating in Peking, all in the hands of white-headed old fellows like myself. I have no son to succeed me and I have no pupils to continue the old traditions, to make my shadows dance when I am gone. (Wimsatt 1936, 33)
The current state of shadow theater has been presented to reinforce the importance of preserving these items and was a determining factor in prioritizing the AMNH collection for rehousing and treatment. The rehousing, survey, and treatment of the AMNH Chinese shadow puppet collection demanded resolution of conservation issues that, while focusing on ethnographic artifacts, can be applied to a wider variety of collections. Preservation of the original function and composition of the puppets was considered paramount, and treatments were developed to accommodate the challenging materials that compose them. These treatments were customized for a large-scale collection that is often the focus of research and exhibition.
In pursuing an acceptable approach to the needs of this collection, the author was granted the opportunity to research the history and technology of shadow puppetry in China. Simply understanding the importance of color and form within the figures was a determining factor in their subsequent treatment. Investigations into past treatments created focused awareness on the detrimental results that these efforts can have. This accumulated knowledge concerning a wide range of issues allowed for the development of a sensitive and appropriate approach to storage and treatment.
I thank Samantha Alderson and Judith Levinson of the Conservation Lab at the American Museum of Natural History for their continued support and suggestions concerning this project. Thanks to George Wheeler at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for his analysis of the oil samples and to Tracy Power at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum for her input on the history of the treatment of similar collections. Special thanks to Mary Hirsch at the Seattle Art Museum for her editing expertise and her contagious enthusiasm for Chinese shadow theater.