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How long should conservators protect David Beckham’s football?

It’s a hypothetical question, really, because Beckham has certainly owned a lot of footballs.

But let’s just consider the ball that he famously kicked in 1996 from the halfway line, the one that landed spectacularly in Wimbledon’s net and helped make him famous in both the UK and abroad.

So you could argue that this ball should end up in a British museum, given Beckham’s huge impact on sports culture in the UK at the turn of the 21st century. Kept under the right temperature, humidity, and light conditions, a leather object like his football could potentially last thousands of years before degrading into a mess of gelatinized protein.

But really, should a museum pay the energy bills to keep his ball under optimal relative humidity, light levels and temperature so that it lasts for a millennium or two to come? Will people care about David Beckham’s ball in 50, 100, or even 500 years?

What about other cultural heritage objects, such as Albert Einstein’s papers? Or a Van Gogh painting? Or an Ansel Adams photograph? In other words, long should museum or archive collections be expected to last?

In principle “we’ve been working on the premise of forever. But that’s actually not realistic. Nothing lasts forever,” said Paula De Priest, deputy director of the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute. Continue reading →

The military borrows from cultural heritage science.

This illuminated manuscript has helped out the US army’s remote sensing. ©Lorenzo Monaco, Praying Prophet, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Rosenwald Collection

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*. Continue reading →

Finding Funds For Art And Artifact Science

Studying Picasso. Copyright: Sarah Everts

Are you looking for research dollars to support your scintillating art or artifact science project?

Tomorrow there’s a grant proposal deadline for the National Science Foundation’s Culture Heritage Science fund (also referred to as SCIART). The program was launched last year, injecting an initial $3.2 million to address, “the grand challenges in cultural heritage science,” explains NSF’s Zeev Rosenzweig, who helped start the program.

These grand challenges include the development of new analytical equipment for non-invasive, portable analysis of artwork and artifacts. (So that you could, say, identify a pigment used in an ancient cave painting without scraping a chunk off the cave wall and sending it back to lab for analysis.)

SCIART also funds projects that aim to understand and predict what precisely is happening to the molecules inside artwork and artifacts when they begin to degrade–such as when frescos crumble or acrylic paintings develop sticky surfaces—and how to stop or delay the effects.

According to Rosenzweig, SCIART’s second round of funding will add approximately $4 million more into cultural heritage research. I spoke with him recently about how the program got started and where it’s going. (Interview has been edited down for length.)

Continue reading →