Canada may not be rife with Roman ruins and Rembrandt masterpieces but the country has more than enough art and artifacts—such as one-of-a-kind First Nations leather work, Group of Seven landscape masterpieces and famous hockey gear–to keep cultural heritage scientists at the Canadian Conservation Institute in Ottawa very busy.
With an annual budget of $12 million (CAD) from the federal government, the CCI’s mission is to provide scientific support to some 2500 museums and 1000 archives across Canada.
I was passing through Ottawa last weekend and managed to slip in a visit to the CCI headquarters, where Charlie Costain, the CCI’s director of research, conservation and scientific services took me on a great tour of the warehouse laboratories.
Costain told me that one of CCI’s tasks is to scrutinize work by famous Canadian artists so that the institute can help museums with authentication, should the need arise. To do so, scientists typically look at the paint chemistry in an artist’s masterpieces to find commonalities and any unique oddities that could help fingerprint an original.
If the artist has had somewhat consistent preferences in their art supplies over time, such as the landscape artist Tom Thomson, then figuring out common chemical characteristics is possible. But this task can be seriously tough when an artist has not used consistent materials over time.
This is the case of Norval Morrisseau, an amazing Aboriginal Canadian painter who was sometimes so broke he produced art with whatever paint he could find on whatever canvases he could find. Even before Morrisseau died in 2007, there were so many forgeries of his work on the market that he founded an organization to help track his authentic paintings.
As Costain took me through the labs we saw projects on everything from restoring lovely indigenous birch tree baskets to gorgeous antique world globes. We also passed by a project to restore a silk flag from the War of 1812—a war that many Canadians have a not-so-secret fondness for because Canada beat the U.S. on the battlefield. (Full disclosure: I hold both Canadian and American passports.) Next year is the 200th anniversary of the victory and conservators are trying to get the gold- and brown-colored, threadbare flag into tiptop shape for display.
Another great stop on the tour was with Greg Young, a conservator with a specialty in leather. He’s spent many years studying indigenous leather work and the collagen fibers that make it up. If collagen gets too wet over time, the proteins which are arranged in a triple helix can unzip and turn into mushy gelatin. Leather can also get dry and brittle in dry conditions.
Young has studied the chemistry of how First Nations people tanned their leather in order to figure out how to keep the skin material in good condition. (For example, some leather was tanned through smoke which creates chemical crosslinks in the skin. Another technique was to smear deer brain on the leather which delivers fatty sphingolipids that help keep the animal skin strong and supple.)
Costain says that with so many client museums the CCI gets a lot of interesting–but sometimes quirky–inquiries. These two particularly amused me: How do you conserve artwork made from silicone breast implants? And: If museum goers are allowed to rub the puck used by Sidney Crosby to win the gold for Canada at Vancouver’s 2010 Olympic men’s hockey final, will the rubber degrade with time?