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Think You Can Identify A Van Eyck?

Three Maries At The Tomb

by a Van Eyck brother, or possibly both.

Many art historians have eyed Three Maries At The Tomb

and agreed that it’s a Van Eyck. What’s debated is whether Jan painted the artwork or whether it was his older brother Hubert. Or more likely, whether the painting was a sibling collaboration.

For example, the brothers both worked on the famous Ghent Altarpiece: An inscription on the back says it was started by Hubert and finished by Jan, six years after Hubert’s death.

However, art historians debate which brother had a greater influence on the paintings in the Ghent Altarpiece. Did Jan humbly follow his older brother’s stylistic lead or did Jan turn the artwork into a masterpiece with his own artistic flair? Continue reading →


Arsenic Contamination Of Artifacts

This armadillo's hairy underbelly is not contaminated with arsenic. Credit: Sarah Everts

A few weeks ago I got to touch the hairy underbelly of an armadillo.

Even though it hadn’t been alive for some time, I was still pretty chuffed about the whole experience—I mean, it’s unlikely I’ll ever have such an intimate moment with an armadillo again.

The beast in question had been briefly removed from its basement cupboard home at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences as part of a behind-the-scenes tour during the recent Science Online conference.

The experience of handling a stuffed armadillo was not just exceptional because it’s a stuffed armadillo. The experience was exceptional because it’s rather unwise to spontaneously handle animal or plant-based artifacts found in museum storage rooms.

Until the 1970s, many biologically-based artifacts were doused with arsenic (as well as lead, mercury and some organic pesticides such as DDT) to keep insect and microbial invaders at bay, explained Lisa Gatens, the NCMNS curator of mammals who let me and others on the tour touch the animal. (For the record, the armadillo was safe.)

Since the practice of adding pesticides to biologically-based artifacts began in the 1800s, there are an awful lot of contaminated museum artifacts out there. And many have levels of arsenic that could pose a problem to human health if handled without protection. Continue reading →


Bringing A Controversial Mural in LA Back To Life

By David Alfaro Siqueiros. From www.olvera-street.com

In 1932, David Alfaro Siqueiros got kicked out of Mexico for his political leanings so the artist spent six months in Los Angeles, California, where he produced a controversial mural called América Tropical.

Siqueiros may not be as well-known as his teacher and contemporary Diego Rivera, but these two, along with José Orozco, formed “Los Tres Grandes,” the big three Mexican muralists of the early 20th century.

During his stint in LA, Siqueiros was asked to paint a mural on a second story wall that overlooked Olvera Street, which was–and still is–a romanticized, somewhat kitschy Mexican market set up for tourists.

The idea was for Siqueiros to produce something that celebrated tropical America. The expectation was probably that it might be a romanticized vision of Mexico—just like the street below.

Instead Siqueiros, who was a die-hard Communist, produced a profoundly political piece of art: A crucified indigenous Mexican is at the forefront of the mural, with an American Eagle flying ominously above. A sharp shooter approaches from the right with his gun aimed at the Eagle.

To say the piece made a splash is a pretty major understatement. Continue reading →


Traces Of Tobacco In Mayan Pottery

This 1000-year-old-plus Mayan pot has tobacco leaf residues inside. Credit: Library of Congress.

Conservation scientists went spelunking in to this Mayan pot from 700 A.D. and found traces of nicotine, the first physical evidence of tobacco use by the ancient civilization.

Staff at the Library of Congress, where the pot is housed, might have been tempted to guess that tobacco was indeed inside, since the Mayan script on the container says so.

But they were wiser than that. There have been many cases where the inscription outside a vessel does not match what’s inside-sometimes intentionally so, as is the case with certain Mayan rituals, the researchers note in their article, which will be imminently published in the journal Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry.

In fact this is only the second case to-date (with Mayan artifacts) where the packaging information has accurately matched the goods. The other example dates back to 1989 when scientists found traces of cacao in a correctly-marked Mayan container from Guatemala.

Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the University of Albany used a technique called mass spectrometry to identify the traces of nicotine at the bottom of the pot.

There's blood in the coating of this animal sculpture from the Mali Empire. Credit: C2RMF

They were lucky that the residues had not been degraded over the past thousand years and that the pot hadn’t been stuffed with iron oxide, a commonly used burial material that would have drowned out the nicotine signal.

The analytical technique they used is also helping to identify all sorts of other day-to-day products and ingredients used by ancient civilizations.

Researchers at the Louvre have used mass spectrometry to help identify pink powders in ancient Greek and Roman cosmetics, as well as blood in the coating of animal artifacts from Mali–to name only two of many examples.


Making Use Of A Medical Museum’s Oddities

Inside the Mütter. Credit: Myspace Mütter.

Artful Science is back to regularly scheduled programming!

One of the quirkiest parts of my sabbatical last fall in Philadelphia was discovering the Mütter, a delightfully macabre museum packed with all manner of medical oddities carefully arranged in a 19th century parlor room style setting.

By medical oddities, I mean a wall of human skulls from around the world, slices of Albert Einstein’s brain, a cast of the conjoined twins Cheng and Eng, floating body parts exhibiting gangrene and other diseases, as well as the museum’s pièce de résistance, the cadaver of an obese woman who turned into a giant piece of soap instead of degrading like deceased bodies normally do.

This collection sounds like it could be the basis for a 19th century travelling freak show but instead the medical artifacts are respectfully displayed–and they are also being used to advance current medical research. (This latter point is perhaps not so surprising since the museum is under the purview of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, the U.S.’s oldest professional medical association.)

The causative agent of cholera, Vibrio cholerae. Credit: Wikimedia commons.

For example, because the museum coffers contain diseased tissue samples dating back two centuries, the Mütter was able to provide infectious disease scientists from Canada with samples of cholera DNA from the 19th century.

“They turned one of our back rooms into a clean room,” says Anna Dhody, the Mütter Museum’s curator. Then they put on white jumpsuits and masks and extracted samples from three intestines of people who died of cholera over a hundred years ago, she says.

The researchers sequenced the old cholera DNA and compared it to the deadly pathogen’s modern day genome. By studying how cholera evolves over time, scientists may be able to predict how the pathogen will evolve in the future—and this may permit researchers to develop ways to thwart its spread.

The museum also contains a plethora of examples of human developmental disease, from birth defects to bone disorders. One compelling example is the skeleton of a man with an ailment called Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva, a rare disease in which a person’s connective tissue, muscle and ligaments turn slowly in to bone. This usually begins before the age of 10.

An FOP patient's skeleton, where connective tissue has turned to bone. Credit Mütter Myspace.

There are only about 700 people in the world with this disease and many diagnostic procedures on patients with FOP accelerate the disease’s progression.

It’s a Catch-22 that the Mütter’s FOP skeleton is helping researchers escape, says Robert Hicks, the museum’s director, during a tour in December.

The Mütter gives medical researchers and doctors access to the fragile skeleton to help them understand exactly how the soft tissue eventually turns into bone. In fact, one of these doctors is Frederick Kaplan, who works just across town at the University of Pennsylvania, and is one of the world’s experts in FOP. (His team sequenced the gene responsible for the disease.)

One of the largest displays at the Mütter is a wall of 139 skulls from people around the world who lived in the 1800s. This particularly morbid display was the personal collection of a 19th century Austrian anatomist named Josef Hyrtl.

Part of the Hyrtl skull collection. Credit Mütter Myspace.

Some of the skulls may have a dark past, Hicks says, (many early anatomists commonly bought bodies from grave robbers), but now the collection is being used for good.

For example, CT scans were taken of the skulls to get precise measurements of the variable contours of the human head. Information from the scans is stored in a large forensic anthropology database. When mass graves full of unidentified bodies are found, researchers can turn to such databases to figure out the likely geographic and/or racial origin of the victims. In fact, the Mütter’s skull collection was used to identify the origin of people from mass graves found subsequent to the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, Hicks says.

After the tour, I came back and spent nearly an hour staring at these skulls. Besides being a powerful display of human variability, each specimen had flashcard about the person who once inhabited the skull–the “antemortem” information in museum speak.

Sometimes the details were few: shoemaker, guerilla, Calvinist. Sometimes you learnt that the person had taken their own life over the suspected infidelities of a loved one, or from a disease we now cure easily.

To me it was an important reminder that every medical sample, sitting on current lab benches or on display in museums, comes from a real person, with a life history of their own.


Post At Newscripts On Lavoisier Portrait

It’s not exactly conservation-related, but I’ve added a post to the Newscripts blog that may appeal to Artful Science Readers. It’s about the fascinating provenance of an iconic portrait of pioneering chemist Antoine Lavoisier and his wife.


Uncovering the history of a St. Tammany weathervane

Guest post by Celia Arnaud, a senior editor at Chemical & Engineering News.

Before conservation, this St. Tammany weathervane was coated with an unwanted layer of black paint. Credit: Matt Hamilton/Williamstown Art Conservation Center.

Many pieces that started out as functional objects have crossed over into the realm of art. This is especially true for that genre known as folk art. Metal weathervanes are a prime example of such art. Because these pieces actually had a job, they weren’t carefully housed indoors. They were exposed to the elements—and the local gunslingers.

At last week’s Eastern Analytical Symposium, Kate Payne de Chavez, a conservator at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center, in Massachusetts, described the steps she took to characterize and repair a St. Tammany weathervane that had seen some tough times.

The St. Tammany motif features an Indian chief holding a bow and arrow and standing on the shaft of another arrow. He’s believed to represent a 17th century chief in the Lenni-Lenape tribe in the Delaware Valley, known alternatively as Tammany, Tamanend, or Tammamend. Because of his role in establishing peace between Native Americans and the English settlers in the Pennsylvania colony, he achieved near-mythic status, and his name was co-opted by various Societies of St. Tammany, the most famous of which grew into the Tammany Hall political machine.

The largest and most famous St. Tammany weathervane—standing more than eight feet tall—is at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City. The one that Payne de Chavez repaired is only one-third the size, nearly three feet tall.

Continue reading →


Art conservation in an unexpected place

Guest post from Celia Arnaud, a senior editor with C&EN

Today and tomorrow, I’m in Somerset, N.J., home of the Garden State Exhibition Center and the Eastern Analytical Symposium. Not a place that you’d expect to read about on a blog about conservation science. What people might not realize is that EAS hosts New York Conservation Foundation’s Conservation
Science Annual, a symposium–as the name might suggest–on the science of art and cultural heritage conservation. If the conference that Sarah attended in Lisbon in September is the largest art conservation conference, then this is surely one of the smallest.

The symposium has been a fixture of the EAS conference program since 1994, but I attended my first one in 2006, when I got the chance to report one of my favorite stories, a look at how electrochemical and spectroscopic methods are being used to save shipwrecks. In my years of attending the symposium, I’ve found that no matter how interesting the talks the audience tends to be me, the speakers, and maybe a handful of other folks.

This year’s lineup is a bit scattershot, with everything grouped together under the general heading of “Analysis for Cultural Heritage.” Rather
than try to shoehorn very different talks into one post, I’m going to share in separate posts over the next few weeks the ones that pique my interest.


Finish Fetish Chemistry

Gray Column, 1975–76, De Wain Valentine. Polyester resin. © De Wain Valentine

Consider this cultural cocktail: the 1960s and 70s surfing scene in Los Angeles, that era’s emerging aeronautical and chemical industries, plus a splash of flavor from Hollywood and the Beatniks.

The result is a group of artists called the Finish Fetish who produced minimalist sculptures often made from materials newly available in those decades, such as polyester.

Finish Fetish is “extra spit and polish in pop and minimal art plus space age materials.” This description (from Peter Plagens via artdesigncafe) explains the obsession with “finish”…which should not be confused with the Northern European Finnish.

One of the Finish Fetish is an artist called De Wain Valentine. Commercial resin available at the time “wouldn’t allow him to do what he wanted to do–which was to pour really big objects,” says Tom Learner, head of Modern and Contemporary Art Research at the Getty Conservation Institute.

Valentine wanted to create his extremely large sculptures in a single pour of polyester resin because creating the artwork in two steps interfered with the seamless look he was after. Continue reading →


Christians Artists Embellished Spain’s Muslim Paintings

The interior paintings of Granada's Madrasah Yusufiyya in Spain date from 1349. Credit: Carolina Cardell.

For nearly 800 years, the Islamic Moors occupied Spain, building extraordinary buildings that still draw hordes of tourists today. Case in point: the Alhambra.

Less well known is the Madrasah Yusufiyya of Granada, the only Islamic university from the Moorish era left standing in Spain. It was built in 1349 and operated for about 150 years, until the Christians conquered the region in the late 1400s.

The lovely Madrasah Yusufiyya was then used extensively by the Christians, most likely as administration buildings, says Carolina Cardell a conservation scientist at the University of Granada.

In fact the Christians liked the building so much, Cardell says, that in the last 500 years they have done a lot of touching up, repainting, restoring and embellishing of paintings covering the stucco and wooden interior walls of the Madrasah Yusufiyya.

Yet art historians haven’t really known the extent of these interventions. So over the past few years, while the Madrasah Yusufiyya has been under restoration, Cardell and her team of scientists took a closer look at the paintings with a suite of analytical technology. She’s just published a paper in Analytical Chemistry about the interventions to the Madrasah Yusufiyya over the past 500 years. Continue reading →



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