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Wedding Hiatus

Marc Chagall’s Wedding. Credit: Wikimedia commons.

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 August…

Come To Culture Lab: Science On Art And Artifacts, A Conference Session This Saturday In Dublin At ESOF

The 2012 ESOF conference in Dublin takes place on the other side of the wonderful Samuel Beckett bridge. Credit: Sarah Everts

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: Continue reading →

Sweat-Stained Artifacts

These green sweat stains on a WW2 wedding dress appeared after sweat corroded the copper threads in the fabric. Credit: Australian War Museum

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. Continue reading →

Two-Faced Microbes: Dirty Fungi And Cleaning Bacteria

King Tut's tomb with brown spot stains. © The J. Paul Getty Trust, 2001

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.

Cyanobacteria growing on the Luca Signorelli frescoes in Italy's St. Brizio Chapel caused a rosy discoloration. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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? Continue reading →

Could Spacesuits Embark On A Mission To Save Modern Art?

Neil Armstrong's Spacesuit. Credit: Mark Avino

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. Continue reading →