Conversations with Vania Assis (Conservator)

Working on Dunhuang Scrolls, courtesy Vania Assis

Name : Vania Assis | Country : Portugal based, worked in London & Hong Kong | Website: On Twitter (website under construction)| Years Active : 12  

Q – How do you describe your work to people who don’t know anything about your field?

As a Conservator, that is something that happens frequently. Our work usually happens back stage and whilst what we do with collections is essential, our activities are very discrete. Our role is to support museums and cultural institutions by preserving their objects, through physical conservation treatments and creating environmental strategies.

I personally dedicate a lot of my time researching the material aspects of collection’s objects. This can aid curators with finding more about how an item was created and in which condition it has survived. 

We also contribute to exhibition planning, by advising on safety conditions in which objects can be displayed and making sure all items are stable enough to be in the gallery space.

Q – What inspired you to become a Conservator?

When I was about 11, I watched a documentary on the excavation and conservation of the Dead Sea Scrolls from the Qumran caves. I really enjoyed the imagery of the desert and was fascinated by how those manuscripts survived due to extreme dry conditions, in a remote and undisturbed place. I went on to study conservation and specialised in manuscripts – after meeting other people already in the field, I became even more inspired. 

Q – Why did you choose this particular field (of research)?

While completing my master’s degree I was lucky enough to intern at the British Museum and learned papyrus conservation techniques from Bridget Leach. I realised how much I enjoyed the challenging nature of conserving archaeological manuscripts and got to work on other exciting materials, such as early types of paper, palm leaf books and even birch bark scrolls. Most of these are found on archaeological sites along the Silk Road.

A bundle of Tangut documents before conservation, courtesy Vania Assis

Q – What is the most memorable object you’ve researched, or worked with?

Undoubtedly that has to be the Tangut documents from Kharakhoto, unearthed by Aurel Stein in 1914 and part of the British Library’s collection. Their state was so fragmentary back when they were found, that recovery  was deemed impossible, leaving  the documents untouched until the International Dunhuang Project (IDP) launched a conservation project. 

Imagine heavy bundles with a papier-mâché like appearance, where a safe method must be found to unfold and recover material, but the paper is as soft as cotton wool. 

These were some of the most challenging objects I have worked on to this day, but the rewards were also unbeatable. The bundles contained manuscripts, early woodblock printed material, pieces of textiles, plants and seeds. All placed in stupas by the Tanguts until the end of their empire, in 1227 A.D..

Q – Do you recall when was the first time you heard of the phrase “Silk Road”? What was your first impression of it?

I cannot recall the first time in particular, but from an early age it was something that made me wonder about endless land travel and adventurous people, able to make long journeys across deserts and empty land.

The Kharakhoto site, Heishuicheng (黑水城), lies in the Gobi desert, North-East of Dunhuang

Q – What is your most memorable experience of travelling along the Silk Road?

The wonderful sight of the stupas of Kharakhoto against bright blue sky and pale sand dunes. I travelled there and to Dunhuang, with the IDP team back in 2016, when I was working at the British Library. 

We also visited the Yulin grottoes, which were a highlight for me. Their amazing state of preservation,  combined with the peaceful surroundings, was the best way to enjoy the mural paintings from all different periods. I really felt like I was travelling through time.

Q – Which city or region along the Silk Road are you looking forward to visit, for the first time?

There are far too many, but in future I would like to travel more along the regions and cities in central Asia. This is of particular interest to most conservators, as it was the transfer point for paper making technology from China to the Islamic world.

Q – What language(s) spoken along the Silk Road have you studied, or would wish to study?

Currently I am learning Mandarin – this for fun only, and I am not even close to becoming fluent. But I enjoy understanding how my curatorial colleagues date manuscripts based on the use of certain characters. They really have the expertise!

Q – What is the hardest part of your work that people don’t realize?

Conservators must have a multidisciplinary approach to their work and research, so that they can deal with physical and chemical problems on artifacts. Interventions are quite planned and discussed; certain elements of history and context must be protected as an integral part of the object, meaning that ethics also plays a key part in decision making.

Q – What is your dream (or even fantasy) research project?

I have been very lucky and worked with remarkable objects. It will be hard conserve something more exciting than Dunhuang scrolls or manuscripts excavated from the desert. 

In the future, I still hope to work again on these collections, but directly with institutions from silk road countries. 

Q – If it were possible, what historic figure would you like to meet? Why?

Vasco da Gama. He was the first to travel from Europe to India by sea, therefore being at least partially responsible for the Silk Road’s demise.

Having grown up in Portugal, I learned this chapter of history from a western perspective, but having access to other sources later, has really changed my perspective. Hero or villain? There is no way of ever finding out.

Q – What movie best depicts a historic or aesthetic aspect of the Silk Road?

The film screened at the Dunhuang visitor centre was a good depiction of the different aspects from war and trade along the Silk Road. In addition to this, there is an experience room with a screen on a doomed ceiling where you get to see images of Dunhuang paintings close up, feeling very immersive. 

Having said that, I wished more movies set on the Silk Road being made on our times.

'Vasco da Gama' (circa 1460-1524), oil on canvass by antonio Manuel da Fonseca, 1838, Royal Museums Greenwich
‘Vasco da Gama’ (circa 1460-1524), oil on canvass by antonio Manuel da Fonseca, 1838, Royal Museums Greenwich
The Mogao Caves, also known as the Thousand Buddha Grottoes or Caves of the Thousand Buddhas in Dunhuang, northwestern Gansu Province, in China.
A recovered Tangut manuscript, courtesy Vania Assis

Q – What music or soundtrack most embodies the sound of the Silk Road for you?

Any music that inspires dance, meditation, or even both.

Q – What fundamental change(s) in your work do you anticipate in the post-pandemic world?

Conservation was always a challenging field in terms of funding. With less crowds coming to museums, conditions will inevitably get less favourable. 

However, whether visitors are present or not, maintaining collections and ensuring preservation is a continuous process that cannot be neglected. Otherwise, once crowds return, there will be not much left to see. 

I believe that we are going to carry on with digital projects that are important in terms of preservation, with the added responsibility to make these initiatives even more focused on engaging with the public.

Q – What modern day cultural trend (sports, music, art, architecture) has its roots in the Silk Road – that majority do not know?

Stencils. I was amazed when one of the paper fragments from Kharakhoto I conserved had a peculiar coating and many small punctures, forming lines along a drawing. This was a commonly used technique for making patterns on mural paintings. 

These were often discarded and rarely survive; I was thrilled to find an 800 year old stencil paper.