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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 →

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.

A Visit To The Opificio, Italy’s Primary Restoration Lab

An Opificio restorer working on a Vasari panel painting. © Sarah Everts.

Italy has no shortage of art, and when that art needs a face-lift, it takes a trip to the Opificio delle Pietre Dure e Laboratori di Restauro, the country’s national restoration laboratory.

Located in an elegant old stable in Florence, the Opificio is like a spa for cultural heritage artifacts, where paintings, frescoes and sculptures go for age-extending treatments.

When I visited, Cecilia Frosinini, an art historian and the Opificio’s director of mural paintings, was kind enough to give me a tour.

As we wandered through the extensive labs, dozens of restorers were working on a wide variety of pieces including Renaissance paintings sent from Budapest for anti-aging therapy, ceramic sculptures, water-damaged frescoes and a wooden statue of Christ that had been painted to look like bronze during an era when bronze was popular but too expensive for some budgets.

Looks like bronze but it's actually wood. © Sarah Everts

The Opificio has also been recently involved in everything from using ultraviolet light to bring out cool, hidden details in Giotto paintings to the restoration of Santa Croce Basilica’s famous frescoes.

Like many great things in Florence, the Opificio has its root with the city’s famous Medici family. The first half the Opificio’s Italian name translates to “workshop of semi precious stones.” And as the name suggests, the Medicis founded the Opificio in 1580s to produce furniture decorated with semi precious stones, Frosinini told me.

Time passed and the workshop began restoring their own pieces. By the 19th century, art made from other materials such ceramic, marble and jewelry, was also being restored, she added.
Continue reading →

Visiting The Metropolitan Museum’s Science Lab

The Met's science labs. © Sarah Everts

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.

Islamic blue mosaics. © SE

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.

Continue reading →

Conserving Canada’s Valuables

The Pimple, Evening, by Group of Seven painter A.Y. Jackson. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Canada may not be rife with Roman ruins and Rembrandt masterpieces but the country has more than enough art and artifacts—such as one-of-a-kind First Nations leather work, Group of Seven landscape masterpieces and famous hockey gear–to keep cultural heritage scientists at the Canadian Conservation Institute in Ottawa very busy.

With an annual budget of $12 million (CAD) from the federal government, the CCI’s mission is to provide scientific support to some 2500 museums and 1000 archives across Canada.

I was passing through Ottawa last weekend and managed to slip in a visit to the CCI headquarters, where Charlie Costain, the CCI’s director of research, conservation and scientific services took me on a great tour of the warehouse laboratories. Continue reading →