Sabine Cotte

1996 Associate Laureate, Cultural Heritage
France, Born 1961

Project Goal

Conserve Bhutan’s fortified monasteries through the publication of a preservation handbook

Location: Bhutan

Preserving the Past

Common sense advice like "turn off the taps" forms the core message of The Handbook of Preventive Conservation for Dzongs and Lhakhangs, published in late 1998 and co-authored by Cotte. The idea of the handbook earned Cotte an Associate Laureate Rolex Award in 1996.

Moved to Conservation

The project was conceived following a three-week trek through Bhutan in 1992, when Cotte, a French art restorer and her partner David Nock, a British-Australian architect, visited three dzongs and found cracks in the walls, crumbling foundations and scratched frescoes.

"Most of the damage came from moisture in the structure, smoke and fire damage; from butter lamps, graffiti, and other simple problems that could be solved easily," Cotte recalls.

Touched by the beauty of the monasteries and concerned about their demise, Cotte and Nock wrote a report and presented it to the Bhutanese authorities at the Special Commission for Cultural Affairs. They were invited back to Bhutan — a rare honour — to develop an easy-to-use handbook so that caretaker monks could prevent further damage to the country’s rich artistic treasures.

The book was written in English and Dzongkha, the language of Bhutan, and it is now ready to be put to use. Dorji Wangchuk, head of Bhutan’s division of cultural properties, is looking for funds to hold a workshop to launch the handbook. Caretakers of dzongs and lhakhangs from throughout the country will be invited and introduced to the handbook and its basic approach to conservation.

Preserving the Past

Many of the dzongs were first constructed in the 17th century, during a large building programme under the rule of Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel. Acknowledging that today the dzongs are showing considerable signs of wear, Dorji Wangchuk says, “We want to save our culture and preserve our identity before it’s too late. The handbook is very important.”

Not everyone in Bhutan, however, grasps the importance of preserving their ancient cultural identity. Some are of the opinion that it would be better to devote scarce resources towards creating new art, rather than trying to preserve what already exists.

King Jigme Singye Wangchuk is not among them. In an effort to conserve Bhutan’s cultural identity, the king has instructed that all citizens wear traditional clothing. He has also noted that the Bhutanese can get as much merit by restoring an existing artwork as would be possible by creating something new.

Similar Problems

Thus, Cotte’s counterpart at Bhutan’s Special Commission for Cultural Affairs, Singye Dorji, visited her and Nock in France to learn about art preservation in Europe.

"The architect of the 17th century court of justice in Rennes explained to us how he was trying to restore the building, which is used as the Brittany parliament, after it was destroyed by fire," Cotte says. "It was interesting for Singye because he found that in this case France and Bhutan had a similar problem — restoring a building that was actually in use."

Singye Dorji played an important role in helping Cotte and Nock eventually put the handbook together. "Singye was invaluable in helping us understand the every day life of the monks," Cotte says. "He’d ask the monks ‘Do you cut meat on the windowsills near paintings?’ If they answered yes, he would ask ‘Do you have a problem with insect pests?’ and then, ‘Are the monks healthy?"

Cotte explains that this line of questioning would naturally lead to a discussion about the importance of hygiene, since sloppy housekeeping encourages rats and insects that make people sick and eat the animal glue that attaches canvas paintings to the wall.

Detective Work

It took a bit of sleuthing to arrive at some of the commonsense bits of advice presented in the handbook.

"We found that long sections of wall murals often had extensive scratches and wear about 20 centimetres and 100 centimetres above the floor," Cotte explains. "We couldn’t imagine what caused these consistent marks. Then Singye asked the young novice monks how they stood when they got bored listening to their repetitive lessons. And the boys showed us how they slouched against the wall — the marks on the murals corresponded with the area where their shoulders and their bent legs rubbed against the mural."

In one of the handbook’s drawings a young monk is climbing through a hole in the roof to dry his just-washed clothes. "Such a simple thing — the monk might remove the metal sheet that protects the roof and forget to put it back. Then it rains and water seeps throughout the building," says Cotte.

Fire in the monasteries is a continual threat, and the handbook suggests that caretakers place butter lamps away from inflammable materials like silk scarves. If there is a fire, the handbook notes that monks can minimise the damage by keeping buckets of sand and fire extinguishers nearby.

Similarly, most dzongs have electricity, but live, uninsulated wires are often left exposed. The handbook suggests that all electrical connections should be installed by a qualified person.

But for all the lessons put forward in her handbook, Cotte feels she is the one who has learned a great deal — and not only about conservation. "Our western ways of tackling a problem aren’t necessarily the right ways," she says. "We quickly learned to be humble. In Bhutan all our certainties have little value."

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

Other 1996 Associate Laureates