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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Finding Funds For Art And Artifact Science

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.) Artful Science: Why was SCIART needed and how did it get started? Zeev Rosenzweig: Well, the NSF wasn’t funding much in this field. I mean, there is an NSF program called Archaeology & Archaeometry and it does fund some student or postdoc research connected to cultural heritage, but we weren’t often funding larger research projects on the chemistry and materials science side of things. In 2009, I was invited to a symposium about cultural heritage science hosted by the Art Institute of Chicago and Northwestern University. As I listened, I thought, “Huh there’s a lot of good chemistry and materials science here.” So I asked the presenters why the NSF wasn’t seeing proposals on these topics. Many answered that they had applied in the past but they had not been successful.  So I came back to NSF and asked around to see how we might catalyze this field. The NSF is a bottom-up organization so we don’t really tell people, ‘You have to write proposals on a given topic,’ just because we feel like it. It has to come from a community input. So I asked Northwestern’s Richard van Duyne to see if he’d lead a workshop to discuss the grand challenges in cultural heritage science, which the NSF might be able to then provide funding for. He worked with Marco Leona from the Metropolitan Museum.  The NSF sponsored the event with the Andrew Mellon Foundation.  [Here’s the workshop report.] One of the major...

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