Conserving Contemporary Art… And Your Favorite Mix-Tape

I spent most of today learning about what museum scientists and conservators are doing to keep contemporary art in tip-top shape. (This whole week I’m at ICOM-CC, the huge art conservation science conference currently taking place in Lisbon.) These folks who are developing life-extension treatments for some pretty quirky art and artifacts. I’m talking about gigantic chandeliers made from hundreds of illuminated plastic bags suspended from the ceiling, each bag containing a little electronic toy dog that barks and moves its legs. Gotta love it. Or they’re working on sculptures made from random objects covered in aluminum paint that are now degrading beneath the metal veneer. Or Nazi typewriters found at bombed Gestapo headquarters. Over lunch one Danish conservator told me he once had to restore the cast of a female body made from pizza dough that had cracked with age. The restoration strategy involved making pizza dough in the restoration lab and carefully inserting it into the sculpture. A great talk today was about the artist Dan Flavin who made light installations in the 1960s from fluorescent light bulbs that he had bought at the hardware store. You’d think that when the bulbs burn out, it would be pretty easy to replace them with new ones since we still use fluorescent lighting. The problem is, modern bulbs emit different colored light than the bulbs in the artwork, giving the light installations a completely different look. So researchers led by Francesca Esmay at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum are now tabulating the exact wavelengths emitted by his original bulbs so that conservators can know the artist’s original light palette, and possibly try to find ways to replicate it. Another great talk today was on magnetic tape conservation. If you’re under thirty, your experience with cassette tapes is probably limited to the hipster wallets you can buy on etsy. If you are over thirty, you probably still have a mixed tape--or several--full of songs that elicit intense nostalgia for your (possibly) misspent youth. If you’re a conservator of musical archives, thoughts of magnetic tape probably elicit feelings of panic. Researchers, such as Peter Weibel at the Center for Art and Media, have predicted that art forms stored on magnetic tape will be completely lost to the world within the next decade, due to degradation of the tape. Because of this, many archives want to digitize sound stored on magnetic tape. But if you’ve got thousands and thousands of tape reels, how do you know which ones to digitize first? Probably the ones closest to being completely unlistenable, right? And how do you assess imminent unlistenability? That’s where Elena Gómez-Sánchez comes...

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Banking On A Bunker To Save Britain’s Film

If I had to marry an inanimate object, I would not choose the Berlin Wall as Eija-Riitta has, but I might be tempted by a bunker, possibly the Boros bunker, whose dark history has been reclaimed by great art. So you can imagine that I was super interested in a recent Guardian article about a new archive for the British Film Institute, which will be located on top of the site of an old nuclear bunker. The BFI is facing what's already a become a major problem for many who possess collections of early cinema: How do you keep 450,000 cans of film from breaking down, particularly when the film is made of cellulose nitrate, a plastic not known for its longevity? When cellulose nitrate breaks down, it causes the release of nitric acid, which can accelerate degradation in nearby film. Eventually all the degradation results in a gooey or powdery mess where there was once a fantastic film. The BFI's spokesperson Brian Robinson told me that in the new archive, fragile film will be kept at -5 C, which is "down a notch" from the previous temperature (3-4 C) that the film was stored at. According to studies done at the BFI, Robinson says that the cellulose nitrate degradation will "be arrested." I can't imagine that it's ever possible to completely arrest degradation, but I'm guessing the drop in temperature seriously decreases the rate of chemical breakdown. Finally, Robinson says the new £12 million facility will be well-ventilated, which I presume will suck away any amount of nitric acid that has managed to percolate off the valuable...

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The PEG In Sweden’s Vasa Warship

The vessel took four years to build and was armed with the highest tech weaponry available in 17th-century Sweden, but the four-story, top-heavy Vasa warship sunk before it managed to sail a nautical mile out of Stockholm's harbor. That was 1628. When the ship was pulled out of the water 333 years later in 1961, archeologists found all sorts of well-preserved goodies on board, as well as a hull in excellent shape. The wood had mostly managed to avoid two major evils: Degradation via wood worms (probably because the ship had sunk when it was still brand new) and degradation via microbes (the quirky bacteria that could survive in Stockholm's particularly polluted harbor weren't much interested in snacking on wood). Letting the boat dry out would have been a death sentence for the gigantic artifact, since water-logged wood tends to shrink and warp as the water evaporates away, explains Martin Nordvig Mortensen, a researcher at the National Museum of Denmark, who is studying the degradation of the Vasa's wood. (The vessel is located in Stockholm at the Vasa Museum). Instead of letting the boat dry out, conservators sprayed the Vasa with a polymer called polyethylene glycol (PEG) until the ship was entirely saturated. (This took 17 years of spraying!) Since PEG doesn't evaporate away upon drying, the wood is thus stabilized against warping. (Incidentally PEG has a curious spectrum of other applications, such as in theater smoke, toothpaste, antifreeze and personal lubricant.) Given that PEG is a polymer and polymers aren't known for having long museum shelf lives, one might wonder whether impregnating the Vasa with it was a particularly wise conservation choice. But the polymer seems to be holding up. A 2006 study found that "the PEG after 30 years is still in a reasonably good condition." This is good news since conservators decided to spray the stuff on England's famous Mary Rose ship too. However researchers worried that the trace amounts of problematic formic acid detected in the Vasa ship's wood was coming from PEG break-down. But it turns out that formic acid can also originate when wood breaks down. So how can one tell whether the formic acid is coming naturally from the wood or from the PEG? One answer is isotopes, Mortensen says. Carbon can exist in three isotopic forms: carbon-12 (the most common), carbon-13 and carbon-14 (which is radioactive). The relative ratio of these carbon isotopes present in formic acid can provide clues to where the acid originated. For example, if the formic acid was coming from PEG degradation, it should have very little carbon-14, since the PEG is made from petrochemicals, which have...

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Plastics Denial Syndrome

Sometime during the 1960s, artists en masse began using plastics to make art--a trend that continues today. The problem is that many plastic polymers have a shelf life of just a decade or so, after which they begin to crumble or crack. Consider an old rubber band or a plastic bottle left out in the sun. And just as bisphenol A leaches out of baby bottles and into the surrounding liquid, many of the components of plastic-based art seep out of the work, causing all sorts of unpleasant consequences (details below). Furthermore, the short lifespan of plastic art is at odds with the fact that most museums want to buy art that lasts centuries or at least decades... not years. Yet in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s, just as plastic sculptures and designer furniture were pouring in to museum and gallery collections, staff conservators were collectively sticking their heads in the sand about the inherent vulnerability of these objects... I mean, even though plastics have short lifespans, there are ways to extend them. But conservators weren't acknowledging that plastics were problematic. It's come to be known as "the plastics denial syndrome" and thankfully it's now over, says Yvonne Shashoua, a conservation scientist at the National Museum of Denmark, in Copenhagen. Shashoua features heavily in an article I just wrote about how plastics are a serious problem child for museum staff and what can be done to improve some pretty impressive bad behavior. Case in point: the phthalate plasticizer added to make PVC (polyvinyl chloride) maleable has a tendency to leach out, so much so that small pools of the plasticizer collect in and around the art. These plasticizer puddles are not precisely aesthetically pleasing, they attract dust and actually the loss of the plasticizer destabilizes the plastic making it vulnerable to cracking. Then there's this more nepharious example: Acidic gases percolate away from plastic objects made of cellulose acetate and then corrode nearby metals and textiles. For this reason conservators call cellulose acetate "the malignant plastic." Cases like these forced conservators to take the degradation of plastics seriously. Check out the longer article to find out what museum staff are now doing to keep plastic art and artifacts alive and as well-behaved as...

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Two-Faced Microbes: Dirty Fungi And Cleaning Bacteria

Microbes can be an ugly pain-in-the-butt for artifacts. Even if the bacteria and fungi growing on heritage buildings, frescoes, space suits and archival documents can be killed, they often leave behind some rather unpleasant stains that are really hard to clean off the sensitive surfaces of artifacts. That's the situation in King Tut's tomb, for example, where fungi have left behind dark brown spots on the beautifully painted walls. Today the Harvard Gazette wrote about this issue: At the request of Egyptian heritage officials, researchers at the Getty Conservation Institute swabbed the walls of King Tut's tomb, and sent samples of the brown muck to Ralph Mitchell, a Harvard microbiologist who specializes in cultural heritage science. Getty chemists figured out that the dark spots are actually melanin--the same pigment that builds up in your skin when you get a tan--while Mitchell's team figured out that the fungi are dead and probably won't be producing any more browny spots. Mitchell thinks that the fungi initially grew because the tomb was sealed before the paintings inside were dry, suggesting that the teenage king was buried in a hurry. The still-wet surface thus provided tempting real-estate for melanin-producing fungi. It turns out that melanin-producing fungi have also stained marble in Italian cathedrals after an ill-advised attempt to protect the marble using acrylic polymers. The acrylic on the marble attracted the staining microbes who found the plastic to be a tasty meal. But microbes will also grow on buildings, art and artifacts that haven't received unwise "protection." For example, orangey carotenoid pigments are often left behind by bacteria on stone buildings, Mitchell says, and frescoes have been stained rosy red due to the phycoerythrin pigments produced by cyanobacteria. The question remains: How does one remove these unfortunate discolorations? Mitchell is developing a technique that uses enzymes to eat away the unpleasant pigments without hurting the pretty parts below. Think of laundry detergents that advertize enzymes which can remove stains on your white clothing without doing damage to the textiles. Mitchell's strategy obeys the same overall principle... and that's about as much information as he was able to give because he's in the middle of patenting the enzyme cleaning process. So, all this could leave you with the impression that microbes are only bad for cultural heritage, but here's a possible counterpoint: Researchers in Italy and Spain are experimenting with the idea of using bacteria to clean off the salty crusts that build up on frescoes. Sort of weird but true: The researchers grow Pseudomonas bacteria in a wet gel, and apply it to the frescoes. The bacteria then get to snacking on the...

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Diagnosing The Devil Inside

Similar to a disease, chemical degradation often advances quietly in art and artifacts, without any external warning signals. That is, until a breaking point occurs, and museum staff are suddenly faced with a faded painting or a cracked sculpture. Like doctors who want to diagnose patients at the early stages of their illness, when treatments are more likely to work, museum conservators also want to assess the health of cultural artifacts at the initial stages of degradation, and they want to do so non-invasively--that is, without taking a blood sample. Now Matija Strlic at UCL has just published an article about a new diagnostic tool that can visualize the internal degradation of artifacts before the damage is apparent to the naked eye. Here's how it works: The device shines near infrared light over an entire artifact. The way in which this light is absorbed by the artifact at a particular spot is a fingerprint for its chemical make-up. So if the artifact is starting to deteriorate in a particular spot, the chemical fingerprint will be different there than in places where no deterioration is happening. Using a specialized camera, Strlic's setup can take a picture of the chemical makeup of an object and any damage it's experiencing that is not yet seeable to human eyes. When I reached Strlic to talk about the device, he was in Cairo, Egypt, lecturing at a workshop about the new technology. Given that Egypt's economy is entirely dependent on their cultural heritage, I'm guessing the device will find use there. But Strlic initially tested the device on materials much more modern than those used by the artists employed by ancient Pharaohs. Instead Strlic focused on plastics and iron gall ink--two materials extremely vulnerable to degradation. Writers have been using iron gall ink since the 12th century, so a heck of a lot of important documents since the Middle Ages have been written with it. Here's the problem (from Strlic's paper): Unfortunately, the ink is infamous for its instability and corrosiveness as it induces enhanced degradation of the writing or drawing support, which is a consequence of its acidity and content of transition metals. Acid catalyzed hydrolysis of cellulose in paper is a rapid degradation process and depends on pH; the lower it is, the faster the degradation. In addition to acids, iron gall inks contain a substantial amount of transition metal ions promoting autoxidation of organic compounds present in the ink and in the paper. Yeah. Not a good prognosis for many archives. There's actually a lot of work going on to help save these documents. But what's cool about the new device...

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