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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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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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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Sweat-Stained Artifacts

We all sweat. Some of us do it rather profusely, particularly when life suddenly gets a tad more exciting or stressful than usual. Such as on your wedding day. Or during military combat. Or on your coronation day—if you happen to be royalty. Clothing worn during historically important events often finds its way to museums, and that’s when a textile conservator will take a good look—and possibly a deep sniff—in an outfit’s armpit region. According to four textile conservators who humored my—as it turns out—not so absurd sweat stain inquiry, armpit areas can be colored yellow (no surprise there), but also green, orange, brown and red. The quirkiest sweat stain reported was “a grey-green tide-line stain… with a pinkish interior.” Staining can depend on a myriad of factors, such as the individual wearer’s sweat chemistry, the fabric, the dye, and whether the person was wearing deodorant or antiperspirant. Consider the case of a World War II wedding dress that crossed Jessie Firth’s conservation table at the Australian War Memorial. Worn by five different women in the 1940s, the pretty beige dress had green armpits. Firth figured out that the culprit was a decorative copper thread in the dress that was corroded by the armpit sweat, producing the green patina you normally see on copper-plated architecture. Sweat is a rather complicated mixture of proteins, fatty acids and other molecules, but the lactic acid, salt and ammonia constituents may have all helped corrode the copper wire so that the dress stained green. Proteins in sweat are probably to blame for the most common yellow stain. These proteins may become tightly fixed to the fabric by the aluminum salts in deodorants and antiperspirants–but this is still debated. Some red stains may come from an early formulation of a popular antiperspirant called Odorono (Odor-Oh-No!), which was launched in the 1910s and was initially red in color. (Random aside: The Who once wrote a satirical song about Odorono. But I digress.) The question is what to do about the sweat stains? There’s the increasingly popular “hands-off” philosophy in art conservation circles which argues that even the most benign-seeming treatment may cause some long-term harm, so it’s best to avoid any superfluous interventions on artifacts. In addition, the sweat itself may have some important historical value. For example, if Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation dress had sweat stains, no conservator in their right mind would remove that important historical information about her emotional state at the time—although it could just be information about the June day’s ambient weather. (But is it ever really that hot in England?) On the other hand, decade- or century-old perspiration can weaken a garment’s underarm area...

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In Lisbon, Cultural Heritage Science’s Biggest Conference Gets Going

I’ve just arrived in Lisbon, Portugal, along with 900 other delegates interested in the conservation of art and artifacts, for the International Council of Museum’s Committee for Conservation (ICOM-CC) conference. The mega meeting happens every three years and this time it’s taking place at a conference center in the shadow of the Ponte 25 de Abril, a bridge so reminiscent of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge that I almost got a craving for sour dough. (That’s before I renewed my love affair with pastel de nata, Portugal’s joyous custard pastries.) The menu for this year’s conference looks so good, I’m not sure whether it is physically possible to take in all the great talks that are scheduled. Just this afternoon I’m going to learn about conserving wall paintings from Guatemala to India. There’s also a session about the trend among natural history museums to transfer animals (such as sharks) that are currently preserved in formaldehyde or ethanol in to other preservation solutions. (The problem with formaldehyde is that it’s carcinogenic for museum staff, and DNA in the samples is compromised, thus thwarting the new trend of sequencing the genome of such artifact animals. The problem with ethanol is that long term storage in the alcohol can bleach color from animal samples and mess with their skin texture.) I don’t want to miss out on the talks about analytical technologies used for auntheticating the origin of ancient photographs, nor how to detect microbial contamination in paper-based cultural heritage–even before any damage is done. And there’s also a whole section on environmentally sustainable conservation, which I touched upon in a previous post. Stay tuned this week for more conference goodies from Lisbon. Até...

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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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