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Insights: Dutch Colonial Burgomaster Chair

21 Jan 2020
Bodil Adele Unckel & Sharon Lim

Insights: Dutch Colonial Burgomaster Chair

Bodil Adele Unckel
Conservator, Heritage Conservation Centre (HCC)

Sharon Lim
Curator, National Museum of Singapore (NMS)

When a conservator studies an artefact, every aspect is considered – such as its function, appearance, history and condition. In addition to examining the artwork’s condition and analysing the materials used to construct it, the conservation department works closely with the curatorial department to gather all available information to understand the artefact’s historical and cultural context.

In preparation for the recently-opened Bicentennial exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore, An Old New World: From the East Indies to the Founding of Singapore, 1600s−1819, the NMS curatorial team and HCC object conservators had the wonderful opportunity to examine a wooden chair from the late 17th century.

Burgomaster Chair
Fig. 1: Dutch Colonial Burgomaster Chair (Accession No. 2018-00767)

The object of interest is a Dutch Colonial Burgomaster Chair from Batavia (known today as Jakarta). Dated to the mid-18th century, this beautiful chair is raised on six cabriole legs with lion-paw feet, and has a semi-circular back decorated with carved medallions. This type of furniture was developed in the late 17th century in the former Dutch colonies in the East Indies and Indian subcontinent. Colonial inventories described such chairs as “round chairs” but they became known as “burgomaster chairs” in the 19th century. The name “burgomaster” is derived from the Dutch term “burgemeester”, which refers to individuals holding high positions. This also implies that such chairs would have been used by people of rank and status.

The preservation and conservation of wooden artefacts is one of the oldest, most fascinating and many-faceted conservation disciplines. While our complete examination results were absolutely astonishing and fascinating, we would like to introduce you to just one aspect of it: wood identification.

When the chair was purchased in the Netherlands, the dealer assumed that it was made of djati wood (teak), which fits into the profile of popular tropical hardwoods used in the Dutch East Indies. To confirm the wood species, we conducted microscopic wood identification and realized that the chair is actually made out of rose mahogany (MELIACEAE Dysoxylum sp.). The curatorial team did further research and found that rose mahogany can also be found in areas that were former Dutch colonies, such as Sri Lanka and Sumatra.

The chair also includes wooden blocks underneath the seat, which were added later, and identified to be made from oak (FAGACEAE Quercus sp.).

Here are some images that show the behind-the-scenes process of the conservators working to identify the type of wood used to make this burgomaster chair:


Fig. 2: Samples are taken from hidden areas of the chair.

Fig. 3: The samples are imbedded with “Euparal mounting medium” for long term reference. During this process, the samples are heated to remove air bubbles from the wood cells and to harden the mounting medium.

Fig. 4: The sample size is limited to 3−5 square-millimetres, scalpel-thin peelings. Samples of all three dimensions of the wood are taken and analysed.

Fig. 5: The samples are examined under the microscope to identify the wood species with a magnification of 50x to 200x. The upper row shows oak wood, the lower row shows rose mahogany. The two species differ clearly by size and position of vessels, rays, parenchyma and fibres. To determine a certain wood species, a numeric code system for wood features can be filled into the online “InsideWood Database”, which has over 45,000 images for comparison.

With every examination of and conservation work on an artefact, the possibilities for new discoveries are endless. Unexpected findings such as these make our work as curators and conservators extremely fulfilling, and there is never a dull day at work!