Arsenic Contamination Of Artifacts

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. A quick Internet search brought me to Nancy Odegaard, a conservator at the Arizona State Museum, who has spent a huge chunk of her career trying to come up with solutions to this contamination problem. Odegaard told me that concerns about contaminated artifacts initially arose in the 70s and 80s, during that era’s increasing awareness about the dark side of some commonly used chemicals. The museum community began to worry that conservators and curators working with artifacts might be at risk, not to mention museum goers participating in hands-on exhibits. Then in 1990, the US government launched the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. At this point, museums began returning artifacts to Native Americans who might start using the pieces in ceremonies instead of storing them behind glass. Since many of these artifacts were made of leather, feathers and other biologically-sourced materials, they too had been subject to toxic anti-pest measures. The potential health risk to Native Americans was very concerning. “I lost sleep thinking about this,” Odegaard says. “In particular, you worry about head-dresses, which are worn near the eyes, nose and mouth–this is ground zero for contamination entry.” Odegaard started organizing seminars and conferences with Native American leaders, conservators and medical researchers to discuss contamination and how to assess health risks. (She is an author on this 2000 JAMA letter entitled Arsenic Contamination...

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Making Use Of A Medical Museum’s Oddities

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.) 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. 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...

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

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. 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. The second half of the Opificio’s name, Laboratori di Restauro, refers to the restoration laboratory founded in 1932 by Ugo Procacci, who was a very important Italian art historian at the beginning of the 20th century. Around the same time that Procacci was starting a restoration lab in Florence, other museums around the world were also doing the same, such as the Fogg Art Museum in Boston and the National Gallery in London. These early restoration labs were making use of X-ray imaging–which was becoming more widespread in many fields outside medicine–to see into panel paintings and reveal what they were composed of (such as wood, metal etc). X-rays were also being used to see if there were previous paintings lying below what could be seen with the naked eye. In 1975, Italy’s newly established a Ministry for Cultural heritage decided to merge the 1932 restoration science lab and Medici’s restoration facility together and move everything into a former military horse stable. One of the major projects currently keeping Opificio restorers busy is a major restoration project of five panel paintings by Giorgio Vasari...

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Visiting The Metropolitan Museum’s Science Lab
Jun06

Visiting The Metropolitan Museum’s Science Lab

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...

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Conserving Canada’s Valuables

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. Costain told me that one of CCI’s tasks is to scrutinize work by famous Canadian artists so that the institute can help museums with authentication, should the need arise. To do so, scientists typically look at the paint chemistry in an artist’s masterpieces to find commonalities and any unique oddities that could help fingerprint an original.   If the artist has had somewhat consistent preferences in their art supplies over time, such as the landscape artist Tom Thomson, then figuring out common chemical characteristics is possible. But this task can be seriously tough when an artist has not used consistent materials over time. This is the case of Norval Morrisseau, an amazing Aboriginal Canadian painter who was sometimes so broke he produced art with whatever paint he could find on whatever canvases he could find. Even before Morrisseau died in 2007, there were so many forgeries of his work on the market that he founded an organization to help track his authentic paintings. As Costain took me through the labs we saw projects on everything from restoring lovely indigenous birch tree baskets to gorgeous antique world globes. We also passed by a project to restore a silk flag from the War of 1812—a war that many Canadians have a not-so-secret fondness for because Canada beat the U.S. on the battlefield. (Full disclosure: I hold both Canadian and American passports.) Next year is the 200th anniversary of the victory and conservators are trying to get the gold- and brown-colored, threadbare flag into tiptop shape for display. Another great stop on the tour was with Greg Young, a conservator with a specialty in leather. He’s spent many years studying indigenous leather work and the collagen fibers that make it up. If collagen gets too wet over time, the proteins which are arranged in a triple helix can unzip and turn into mushy gelatin. Leather can also get dry and brittle in dry conditions. Young has...

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