Wedding Hiatus

Artful Science is in the middle of a two week hiatus as I prepare madly for my imminent wedding. (Yay!) In the meantime, it seems somewhat fitting to direct you to a previous post about mysterious green stains on a WW2-era wedding dress. Also, since my silver wedding dress makes me look pretty much like a space bride (but thankfully *not* this one), I figure a post on spacesuit conservation is also a propos. Artful Science will be back to regularly scheduled programming in early...

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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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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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Could Spacesuits Embark On A Mission To Save Modern Art?

When I started working on a feature story in this week’s issue about what Smithsonian museum conservators are doing to prevent moon-race NASA spacesuits from totally falling apart, I really didn’t expect to find a connection to modern art. First, about the spacesuits: They were worn in the 1960s and 1970s by NASA astronauts such as Alan Shepard, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin during their spacewalks and on the moon. After valiantly protecting the astronauts, these outfits have since lost some serious oomph: Some suits are collapsing under their own 65-pound weight, there’s fungi growing in the nylon fabric and leftover astronaut sweat is corroding metal components—just a few amongst many ailments. Lisa Young, the conservator in charge of the moon-race suits at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., says that the most problematic parts are the rubber bladders used to keep the air pressure inside the suit comfortable for the astronauts. These rubber components used to be stretchy and malleable but now they’ve become hard, turned orange and are starting to crack. This makes sense: Imagine trying to use a rubber band purchased 50 years ago. It would crumble in your hand as you stretched it. But 50 years ago, artists were also incorporating rubber (typically listed as latex in museum labels) in all sorts of sculptures. Lo and behold, these rubber sculptures are also turning orange and brittle. For example, at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Gallery, just down the street from the National Air and Space Museum, rubber components of the Fishman sculpture made in 1969 by the Brooklyn artist Paul Thek are both turning orange and have cracked in several places, says Hirshhorn conservator Kate Moomaw. What’s happening is that the polymers in rubber are sensitive to oxygen. With time, oxygen exposure leads to the creation of more chemical connections between the polymer molecules in the rubber–making the material more rigid. These new chemical connections also give the rubber an orange tint. The question is what to do about it. Obviously keeping rubber artwork in a zero oxygen environment is one option. But conservators are also looking for ways to heal rubber that is already so damaged and fragile that moving the artwork around or to another museum could cause irreparable cracking. In fact, Smithsonian scientists are so concerned about this that they want to start a working group across all the institute’s museums and galleries to address rubber and plastic degradation in their collections. And here’s where those space suits might make a difference. Before embarking on a restoration or conservation project on a valuable piece of rubber-containing artwork, museum scientists practice on rubber bands they’ve artificially aged with...

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