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Archive → September, 2011

Using A Digital Light Projector To Restore Mark Rothko Paintings

Different versions of the same painting. Left: the Rothko painting in its faded form. Middle: The ektachrome photo that had turned too red with time. Right: The painting color-corrected back to 1963. (Apologies for the distorted shot. I was sitting off-center from the PPT projection.)

One of the coolest talks I saw at the ICOM-CC conference in Lisbon last week came from Jens Stenger, a conservation scientist at the Harvard Art Museums in Boston. He had the tricky task of figuring out what to do about five paintings by Mark Rothko in the museum’s collection that were so damaged from sunlight exposure that crimson paint on the canvas had turned to blue.

If just a tiny corner of the paintings were light damaged, museum staff might

have considered retouching the artwork with a little paint. But a massive fraction of the massive panels were seriously light-damaged.

And these days the trend in art conservation is to minimize interventions on art, especially contemporary art. So a team of curators, conservators and scientists decided that, “repainting was NOT the way to go,” Stenger said.

But everyone thought museum visitors would want to know how the artwork had looked before the light damage. So what to do?

The solution Stenger came up with is pretty cool: Figure out the exact coloration of the originals. Display the artwork as is, but set up a digital light projector that can cast an image on to the canvases. This projected image temporarily makes the paintings appear as they did when Rothko finished them in 1963. Switch off the projector and the paintings are returned to their current-day states. It’s effectively restoration with an undo button. (And as an aside, the amount of light delivered by the projector is not sufficient to continue to harm the painting.)
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Conserving Contemporary Art… And Your Favorite Mix-Tape

This light artwork involves a lot of electronic toy dogs suspended from plastic bags. This complex installation was made by Francisco Rocha.

I spent most of today learning about what museum scientists and conservators are doing to keep contemporary art in tip-top shape. (This whole week I’m at ICOM-CC, the huge art conservation science conference currently taking place in Lisbon.)

These folks who are developing life-extension treatments for some pretty quirky art and artifacts. I’m talking about gigantic chandeliers made from hundreds of illuminated plastic bags suspended from the ceiling, each bag containing a little electronic toy dog that barks and moves its legs. Gotta love it.

Or they’re working on sculptures made from random objects covered in aluminum paint that are now degrading beneath the metal veneer. Or Nazi typewriters found at bombed Gestapo headquarters. Continue reading →

In Lisbon, Cultural Heritage Science’s Biggest Conference Gets Going

It's not San Francisco folks, it's lovely Lisbon... Credit: Wikimedia commons.

I’ve just arrived in Lisbon, Portugal, along with 900 other delegates interested in the conservation of art and artifacts, for the International Council of Museum’s Committee for Conservation (ICOM-CC) conference.

The mega meeting happens every three years and this time it’s taking place at a conference center in the shadow of the Ponte 25 de Abril, a bridge so reminiscent of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge that I almost got a craving for sour dough. (That’s before I renewed my love affair with pastel de nata, Portugal’s joyous custard pastries.)

The menu for this year’s conference looks so good, I’m not sure whether it is physically possible to take in all the great talks that are scheduled.

Just this afternoon I’m going to learn about conserving wall paintings from Guatemala to India. There’s also a session about the trend among natural history museums to transfer animals (such as sharks) that are currently preserved in formaldehyde or ethanol in to other preservation solutions.

(The problem with formaldehyde is that it’s carcinogenic for museum staff, and DNA in the samples is compromised, thus thwarting the new trend of sequencing the genome of such artifact animals. The problem with ethanol is that long term storage in the alcohol can bleach color from animal samples and mess with their skin texture.)

I don’t want to miss out on the talks about analytical technologies used for auntheticating the origin of ancient photographs, nor how to detect microbial contamination in paper-based cultural heritage–even before any damage is done. And there’s also a whole section on environmentally sustainable conservation, which I touched upon in a previous post.

Stay tuned this week for more conference goodies from Lisbon. Até logo!

Greening Up Conservation Science

My pedestrian Photoshop attempt to give an Egyptian sculpture a greener feel. With apologies to Amenhotep III and thanks to Wikimedia Commons.

Cultural heritage is important so valuable art and artifacts should be protected at any cost, right?

Not so, says May Cassar, the director of the Center for Sustainable Heritage at University College London.

Most museum, galleries and archives take it as a given that air conditioning and pollution filtration are a must for keeping valuable collections in comfortable living conditions, she says.

“But air conditioning and particularly pollution filtration come at a very high cost–not only to institutional budgets but also from an environmental point of view” because fossil fuels are consumed to drive these systems, Cassar explains. “To me it is a double standard to damage the environment outside but protect the environment inside for collections.”

She’s trying to encourage people in cultural conservation careers to consider the environment outside–and not just around valuable collections.

So for example, Cassar advocates that museums in temperate climates–such as the UK–accept some minor risks to collections if there is a possible gain for the environment. For example, a museum might normally use air conditioning to keep humidity in between 50-60%. If the building’s internal humidity would normally only ever range from 40-65%, reaching the outer extremes only rarely, it could be fine for the museum to eschew humidity control without substantially increasing risk to the collection, she says.

Of course, it’s true that some museums don’t have the luxury of a temperate climate… Consider the soul-destroying humidity of Washington DC’s summer months (I barely survived two of them), or the corrosion potential from the high salt concentrations found in the air around ocean-side museums, or the problem New York City’s sooty air pollution raises for valuable collections.

But there may be other ways for museum, archive and gallery staff to go green.
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Dating Silk With Some Fluffy (But Good) Science

Just a little fluff can reveal the age of silk artifacts, such as the age of this Egyptian textile from 900 A.D. Courtesy: The Textile Museum

Scientists at the Smithsonian have come up with a new way to figure out the age of ancient silk artifacts, such as flags, clothing and tapestries, using just a bit of fluff that’s fallen off the valuable textiles.

The only other scientific way to date silk is by carbon-14 dating, which requires about 100 times more sample than the new technique. (There’s another out-dated “stress-strain measurement” test, which as the name suggests, can put precious silk artifacts through some major mechanical procedures to do the dating. Sounds like just the perfect technique for getting on a textile curator’s black list.)

Anyway, the new

technique monitors a component of silk called aspartic acid. Silk is essentially a bunch of intertwined proteins extruded from a silk worm, and aspartic acid is found within these proteins.

Aspartic acid can exist in two forms, the L- and D- forms, which have the same chemical formula but are mirror images of each other. When a silk worm extrudes the silk protein, the aspartic acid is only in the L-form, but over time it transforms into the D-form.
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Simple Science Could Have Caught Massive Forgery

Faking art: Almost the world's oldest profession. This painting was long attributed to Goya but turns out to have been faked by one of his wannabes, Eugenic Lucas. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Last Thursday September 1, Germany’s biggest art forgery case in recent history hit the courts.

Four people stand accused of making €16 million from 14 forgeries sold around the world as paintings by 20th century artists such as Max Ernst and Max Pechstein.

One of the defendants is the granddaughter of a Germany business tycoon by the name of Werner Jäger. He died in 1992, and by 2001 the foursome is accused of selling the fakes, apparently claiming they came from Jäger’s extensive art collection. One of the defendants is accused of painting the forgeries.

Every court case has at least one quirky fact up its sleeve, and here it’s that the actor Steve Martin bought one of the fakes (although he sold it again in 2006).

Chemistry World‘s Ned Stafford has just written a nice science take on the forgeries, explaining that if scientists had had a chance to scan the fakes, they could have easily kept buyers from being duped.
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Conservation Scientists Get Into The Vibe

Raman was used to identify the arsenic-based pigment on this Egyptian mask. Credit: Peter Vandenabeele

This week some 120 conservation researchers are facing the tragic hardship that comes from spending a week in Parma, Italy, where there is a conference called “Raman in art and archeology.”

This is not a conference about art made from tasty Japanese noodles. (That’s Ramen, silly!)

But if you caught the gratuitous pun in my headline, then you probably already know that Raman spectroscopy is an analytical technology that helps scientists study the vibrations and rotations that occur within molecules. Conservation scientists get giddy about Raman for a bunch or reasons, Peter Vandenabeele, an organizer of the conference, told me:

First: Raman is not picky about art. Which is to say that the technique can be used to study the chemical make-up of jewelry, oil paintings, Egyptian burial masks, glass, Mayan wall paintings… you get the picture.

Second: Portable Raman spectroscopy equipment is non-invasive, so it doesn’t hurt artwork. Scientists head to a museum, and shine low frequency laser light at a painting or sculpture which has mysterious molecular components that they want to know more about—such as a pigment that gives artwork brilliant color, or a pigment that is fading with time.
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