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. Last Thursday, De Priest and other cultural heritage researchers met in London to discuss the development of new ways to realistically assess and predict the lifetime of art and artifacts. This new field of conservation science is called collections demography and it aims to make quantitative predictions about the possible and probable lifetimes of cultural heritage objects under different storage and display conditions. The idea is to use mathematical risk algorithms to model the possible lifetimes of museum and archive collections, explained the University College London’s Matija Strlič, a collections demography researcher and the workshop’s host. As energy costs rise and cultural heritage budgets tighten, these mathematical models will hopefully allow museum and archive staff to make informed, evidence-based decisions about how best to divvy up resources or what conservation strategies will keep a collection in good condition for a particular amount of time. Strlič’s team is developing Excel-based spreadsheets that would allow museum staff to predict the possible lifetimes of museum or archive collections under various future scenarios. For example, the lifetime of a paper document will depend on the relative humidity and temperature of storage, how much light, pollution and handling the paper is subjected to, and what the paper’s pH is. If you input specific storage and display conditions of a paper collection, the software predicts what...

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The military borrows from cultural heritage science.

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 wherein he used NIRS imaging equipment from the US military’s Night Vision lab to study binders and pigments in a 15th century illuminated manuscript by Lorenzo Monaco, called Praying Prophet. 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...

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Dear eBay, I Love You. Sincerely, Conservation Science

Dear eBay, I love you. Yours Sincerely, Conservation Science I’ve been conducting a rather unconventional poll. It consists of a single question posed to unsuspecting conservation scientists, typically during conference coffee breaks or at the hotel bar thereafter: “Um. So have you ever bought anything on eBay… I mean, for your scientific work?” What’s amazing is that researchers working with cultural heritage objects as diverse as Picasso paintings, plastic sculpture & toys, and digital art have all answered “yes.” Plastics: So that awesome photo of the Barbies in the sample holder? Several of the PVC dolls were purchased by Matija Strlic on eBay for the Heritage Smells! project. He’s part of a team of researchers trying to find a way to diagnose the health of plastic and paper artifacts in museums and archives by sniffing the gases that percolate off the objects. When a plastic (or paper) artifact begins to degrade it produces breakdown gases. But before Strlic can build a hand-held electronic nose that museum staff can then use to assess the health of their collections, his team needs to develop the analytical tool on old, non-valuable plastic objects. And that’s how he started buying Barbies on eBay. Picasso and friends: Between 1900-1950 many contemporary artists (Picasso, Miró, Kandinsky) began experimenting with using the newly invented industrial wall paint called Ripolin for their artwork instead of hoity-toity artist paint. According to Francesca Casadio, this was for a couple of reasons: First: It dried faster than the professional artist paint—a useful feature for procrastinating painters working on deadline. Second: Using industrial paint was a snub to the stodgy art world who wouldn’t dream of using anything but traditional oil paints. Third: Some artists liked the glossy finish of industrial paint. In trying to find a way to identify a painting produced with industrial paint, Casadio needed examples of Ripolin paint from the early 20th century to practice on. And so she turned to eBay… Digital art: Since the advent of computers and other forms of electrical recording technology (such as audio cassettes or video), artists have been using this media to produce artworks. But how do you watch art stored on an old floppy disk, or on a Commodore 64’s hard-drive, or on a now obsolete form of Bulgarian video? You need the hard-ware and you need cables to connect that hard-ware to a compatible screen. Leo Konstantelos told me it’s the esoteric cables that are sometimes the hardest to find. But he’s been successful on—you guessed...

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Nuclear Waste Signage Must Last 100,000 Years: Will the Messages Be On Sapphire Disks With Platinum Print Or Pieces Of Broken Pottery?

Humans have been around for 50,000 years and the nuclear waste we’re producing today is going to be harmful for 100,000 years. So how do we create signs that alert our descendents about enormous underground nuclear waste repositories when we don’t know what language they will speak? “A vast underground space with all sorts of curious objects inside… This sounds exactly like where future archeologists are going to want to go digging,” said Cornelius Holtorf, an archeologist at the Linnaeus University in Sweden, who spoke at a Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) session. The session focused on how one formulates a warning message with a 100,000-year lifetime when humans have never built anything that has lasted one-tenth of that time. If we say ‘don’t dig here,’ you can bet that it will only make the site more enticing, Holtorf said. Linguists, archeologists, scientists, engineers and historians have been tackling the issue for decades. Some potential solutions sound a tad wacky: Namely the idea to create an atomic priesthood that carries on an oral tradition about the waste. Other solutions sound temptingly techie, but perhaps a tad expensive: For example, Patrick Charton from the French National Radioactive Waste Management Agency showed the ESOF audience a 25,000 € sapphire disk which could hold warning messages in platinum script. The disk satisfies the longevity criterion: It has a lifetime of at least a million years, he said. Since 40,000 pages of information can be deposited in platinum on the disk, warnings and technological specs could also be inscribed in a potpourri of languages, he added. But the sapphire-platinum solution costs a lot of money. And this is a serious down side, notes geologist Marcos Buser, who has worked with the Swiss Federal Nuclear Safety Commission in this Spiegel article. (It’s in German.) “The material cannot be valuable, otherwise it will be stolen,” said Buser. He favors putting warning messages on pottery sherds instead, since pottery has a long lifetime and broken pieces are less likely to be stolen. I can’t think of two more disparate solutions. I’m guessing something midway between the two will eventually be chosen. For example, Charton mentioned that researchers are trying to replace the expensive sapphire with cheaper, long-lasting glass. Whatever is eventually chosen, I’ll bet archeologists of the future scrutinizing the artifact-to-be will marvel about current-day humanity’s desire for energy—a desire so great that we produced waste to last 100,000...

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Come To Culture Lab: Science On Art And Artifacts, A Conference Session This Saturday In Dublin At ESOF

I’m looking forward to moderating a session on art and artifact science at the Euroscience Open Forum  (ESOF) conference this Saturday morning from 10:45 am – 12:15 pm in the Liffey B room. If you’re in Dublin at ESOF, do stop by! Here’s what you’ll be in for… (the shortened version of my pitch to ESOF): When you mention art or cultural heritage science, most people think about authentication of a priceless masterpiece or identification of a pigment on a Rembrandt or a da Vinci. But cultural heritage scientists are doing this and much much more: They’re helping to conserve and restore everything from spacesuits to plastic sculptures. They’re developing tools to study artworks and artifacts without actually touching them, so that you can tell if Picasso produced a particular masterpiece with hoity toity expensive artist paint or industrial wall paint. They’re getting into the minds of ancient cultures by recreating their recipes for everything from hair dye to incense. And they’re dealing with what some call the digital art crisis: how do you preserve or conserve art that employs obsolete hardware or software, or art that is stored online in fleeting formats or impermanent platforms. Here’s who’s speaking at the Culture Lab session: Matija Strlič is a senior lecturer at the University College London’s Centre for Sustainable Heritage. He’s involved in all sorts of fascinating projects, from the AHRC/EPSRC-funded Heritage Smells!, which is about detecting the chemical makeup of gases emanating off artifacts to figure out degradation taking place inside, to the EU Joint Programming Initiative called ‘Cultural Heritage and Global Change.’ He’s developing technology to visualize damage in art and artifacts before it is visible to the naked eye. Costanza Miliani is a staff researcher at Italy’s CNR Institute for Molecular Science and Technologies. She’s also responsible  for MOLAB Transnational Access, an EU-funded, roving crew of conservation scientists that travel around Europe providing scientific support to museums and galleries around the continent. In the last couple of years, MOLAB has worked on everything from frescoes in Florence’s Santa Croce Basilica, to Van Gogh’s sunflowers in Amsterdam and rare Aztec documents in Liverpool. In her own research, Miliani develops new non-invasive analytical technologies to study dyes, pigments, binders and their breakdown products. Philippe Walter has been a long-time scientist at the Centre for Research and Restoration of the Museums of France, a research facility located underneath the Louvre in Paris. He’s now taken an academic post at the University of Pierre and Marie Curie. Walter has been involved in a potpourri of interesting projects: From researching the Mona Lisa’s complexion using non-invasive, portable technology, to recreating ancient recipes for ancient Egyptian and Grecian cosmetics. Leo...

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Dead Sea Scrolls – Scientists In Berlin Criticize Israeli Cultural Authorities For Treatment Of Sacred Documents

Last week, a peer-reviewed journal called the Restaurator published a controversial article about the Dead Sea Scrolls written by two Berlin-based scientists who charge that these sacred documents are not receiving proper care from the Israeli cultural institutions responsible for their well-being. The article’s abstract does not mince words: “Examination of the properties of the scrolls proves that frequent travel, exhibitions and the associated handling induce collagen deterioration that is covered up by the absence of a proper monitoring program.” “I want the scrolls to be protected,” says Ira Rabin, who co-authored the piece entitled “Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibitions Around The World: Reasons For Concern” with her colleague Oliver Hahn at the German Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing. The 20-page document specifically criticizes the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, who hold responsibility for a majority of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Both defend their treatment of the scrolls (detailed below). But first, the criticisms. Rabin and Hahn argue in the Restaurator that: 1. The Dead Sea Scrolls are being exhibited far too much, and that the consequent travel and handling is seriously accelerating their degradation. The authors show that there’s been a substantial increase in international exhibitions in the past two decades.                             2. No scientifically sophisticated system is yet in place to monitor the degradation state of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The authors argue that all exhibitions should be stopped until a rigorous analytical monitoring system is established and can prove that the frequent traveling is not unduly exacerbating the fragile state of these documents. 3. Current strategies to conserve the scrolls may, in some cases, be worsening their state. In particular the authors take issue with the reinforcement of the scrolls with Japanese tissue paper. This process requires the use of an adhesive called methyl cellulose. Rabin and Hahn argue that use of the adhesive brings the scrolls in contact with unnecessary moisture. They say this wetness is causing collagen in the animal skin parchment to unravel irreversibly from its triple helix formation into an amorphous gelatin. They include an image of this gelatinization to make their point. The article’s first author, Rabin, worked as a consultant at the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) from 2005-2006. From multiple accounts, Rabin and the IAA did not part on congenial terms. In 2007, Rabin received a letter from the IAA’s lawyers (seen by Artful Science) threatening legal action if she presented work from her time at the IAA at a conference or in a publication, based on an employment contract she had...

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