Civilian society constantly makes use of aerospace and military inventions:
Can anyone say the Internet? Or transparent braces? (These nearly invisible dental devices are made from a material called polycrystalline alumina, which was initially developed by NASA “to protect the infrared antennae of heat-seeking missile trackers,” notes Discovery.com)
Cultural heritage also borrows from NASA: Portable X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF) was developed for MARS missions, so that roaming rovers could assess the chemical make-up of rocks on that planet.
Now XRF is a must-have tool for conservation scientists, who want to analyze the chemical composition of art that cannot be transported into a lab, such as a cave painting or Renaissance fresco.
But what about reversing the direction of technology export, so that cultural heritage scientists return the favor by developing new analytical tools for art research that then get delivered to the greater world of science?
This has not happened—until now*.
(*Or so I think, after asking folks in the know… If I’ve missed an example, I trust the Internet’s dilligent fact-checkers to clarify.)
Anyway: As far as I know, the first case of analytical technology export from a museum lab to the outside world of science comes courtesy of John Delaney, who works at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
Delaney has long been working in the field of near infrared imaging spectroscopy (NIRS), sometimes with the army’s Night Vision Lab.
NIRS is versatile analytical tool that can be installed on satellites for remote sensing of ground soil chemistry. Or it can be put in a medical device to measure a patient’s blood oxygen and hemoglobin levels through their skin, non-invasively.
One of the coolest applications of NIRS in cultural heritage science is to visualize paintings made below other paintings, such as the hidden portrait of a beautiful woman below Picasso’s Le Gourmet, which is a still-life of a child eating. Delaney’s project to uncover another hidden Picasso painting was very recently profiled in the New York Times
Earlier this year, Delaney published an article in Angewandte Chemie
Too much incident light can hurt the ancient, fragile document, so Delaney had to use the lowest possible light power settings, filter that light, and effectively work at the sensitivity limits of the NIRS instruments.
As part of the project his team improved the sensitivity of two cameras used to analyze the manuscript. Delaney says that the new cameras which operate at low light levels have now also been used on paintings and tapestries to map wool and silk fibers.
Well it turns out that researchers at Night Vision lab can also make use of NIRS cameras that operate under low light settings for the remote sensing that they do. Delaney says his Night Vision collaborators have now adopted the modifications he developed for the ancient manuscript for use on their instruments.
It’s an unusual connection. I certainly didn’t expect that a 15th century illuminated manuscript would help 21st century military remote sensing.
Postscript: Technology export from cultural heritage science to other areas of research turns out to be a goal of the National Science Foundation’s SCIART program.
Over a year ago I interviewed Zeev Rosenzweig, who launched SCIART. When I asked Rosenzweig about the kinds of cultural heritage science projects the program would ideally fund, he replied:
“It used to be that researchers in the museums would look around for technologies—that were already developed for, say, biomedical imaging—that they could bring to cultural heritage science. And now we’re asking them to bring stuff from their field out to other fields.”
Who knows… Perhaps Delaney’s first example of this cultural heritage technology export will one day be a trend.
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