I recently passed through New York City and had the excellent opportunity to tour the laboratories beneath the Metropolitan Museum of Art with Marco Leona, who’s been the museum’s head of scientific research since 2004. “We deal with everything under the sun, that’s been under the sun for the last 5000 years or so,” he told me.
The Met’s 20-person scientific team has a professional familiarity with New York’s real-estate squeeze. Their equipment is split among four labs in the Met’s Upper East Side neighborhood. Each lab corresponds to one of the museum’s four main artifact conservation departments: paintings, textiles, works-on-paper and “objects,” which is literally everything else–from metal sculptures to ceramic mosaics.
Leona picked me up at the Fifth Avenue security desk on a Monday, when the museum is closed to the volumes of people who normally pack its halls. We walked unusually effortlessly through the European Sculpture and Decorative Arts exhibit to a special elevator that brought us down to the basement “objects” research space. Wandering around lab benches full of beautiful artifacts, Leona gave me an overview of the science team’s many projects.
They’ve worked on everything from how acetic acid wafting off degrading ancient Egyptian wood can accelerate the corrosion of nearby metals to how researchers might use biomedical tools, such as antibodies, to study cultural heritage objects.
There’s excellent logic for using antibodies: In many ancient objects, paint pigments are often suspended in paint binders that are composed of biologically-sourced materials such as egg white, plant sap, animal collagen or mixtures of all these and more.
Identifying the presence of a single, specific type of biological building block, such as an egg white protein, in a complex paint mixture is really tricky. But antibodies have evolved to do exactly this. At every moment of our lives, antibodies are scouring our blood looking for specific proteins on pathogenic bacteria so that our immune system can then destroy them. It’s possible to tune antibodies to search for biological components of paint instead of naughty bacteria.
Scientists in Leona’s team also develop ways to better conserve and authenticate artifacts. For example, when the Neptune Pendant, a Renaissance jewel in the Met’s collection was suspected of being a 19th century fabrication, Leona’s team came to the rescue.
They dated enamel samples from all over the pendant and found that there were both 16th and 19th century components. The conclusion: the Neptune pendant was probably a Renaissance piece that got a facelift in the 19th century.
(As an aside this “facelift” was likely orchestrated by Germany’s infamous art dealer Frédérick Spitzer who apparently hired artists from Cologne to Paris to produce ancient-looking objects.)
As I wandered with Leona through the labs, I was most taken by a 13th century Islamic mosaic. The Met’s team of scientists are trying to figure out how artists from Iran produced the mosaic’s beautiful shiny surface.
The beautiful artifact originated “in response to porcelain from China,” Leona said.
Islamic artists invented new chemistry so that their mosaics had a porcelain-like appearance since the materials and firing required to make real Chinese porcelain didn’t yet exist in the Islamic world, he said.
It turns out that the beautiful porcelain-look-alike luster required “very sophisticated nanoparticle science,” which Leona’s team have analyzed and recreated using ancient treatises from Persian potters.
All in all, ’twas a lovely way to spend a humid Monday morning in New York.