Art conservation in an unexpected place
Nov14

Art conservation in an unexpected place

Guest post from Celia Arnaud, a senior editor with C&EN Today and tomorrow, I’m in Somerset, N.J., home of the Garden State Exhibition Center and the Eastern Analytical Symposium. Not a place that you’d expect to read about on a blog about conservation science. What people might not realize is that EAS hosts New York Conservation Foundation’s Conservation Science Annual, a symposium--as the name might suggest--on the science of art and cultural heritage conservation. If the conference that Sarah attended in Lisbon in September is the largest art conservation conference, then this is surely one of the smallest. The symposium has been a fixture of the EAS conference program since 1994, but I attended my first one in 2006, when I got the chance to report one of my favorite stories, a look at how electrochemical and spectroscopic methods are being used to save shipwrecks. In my years of attending the symposium, I’ve found that no matter how interesting the talks the audience tends to be me, the speakers, and maybe a handful of other folks. This year’s lineup is a bit scattershot, with everything grouped together under the general heading of “Analysis for Cultural Heritage.” Rather than try to shoehorn very different talks into one post, I’m going to share in separate posts over the next few weeks the ones that pique my...

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Conserving Contemporary Art… And Your Favorite Mix-Tape
Sep20

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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Conserving Contemporary Art… And Your Favorite Mix-Tape
Sep20

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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Conserving Contemporary Art… And Your Favorite Mix-Tape
Sep20

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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In Lisbon, Cultural Heritage Science’s Biggest Conference Gets Going
Sep19

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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Conservation Scientists Get Into The Vibe
Sep07

Conservation Scientists Get Into The Vibe

This week some 120 conservation researchers are facing the tragic hardship that comes from spending a week in Parma, Italy, where there is a conference called "Raman in art and archeology." This is not a conference about art made from tasty Japanese noodles. (That's Ramen, silly!) But if you caught the gratuitous pun in my headline, then you probably already know that Raman spectroscopy is an analytical technology that helps scientists study the vibrations and rotations that occur within molecules. Conservation scientists get giddy about Raman for a bunch or reasons, Peter Vandenabeele, an organizer of the conference, told me: First: Raman is not picky about art. Which is to say that the technique can be used to study the chemical make-up of jewelry, oil paintings, Egyptian burial masks, glass, Mayan wall paintings… you get the picture. Second: Portable Raman spectroscopy equipment is non-invasive, so it doesn’t hurt artwork. Scientists head to a museum, and shine low frequency laser light at a painting or sculpture which has mysterious molecular components that they want to know more about—such as a pigment that gives artwork brilliant color, or a pigment that is fading with time. Shining the light on the artwork makes the molecules inside vibrate. As the molecules eventually relax they release photons of light that scientists can then measure. These photons are a chemical fingerprint that reveals the identity of the molecule that was vibrating. So researchers can learn about the molecular make-up of the artwork without touching it, except with some low energy laser light. Third: Raman is a non-invasive technique that can provide more information about art than other hands-off methods, such as X-ray fluorescence, where conservation scientists shoot X-rays at art and get it to fluoresce. This X-ray fluorescence gives scientists information about the artwork’s chemical elements… such as the presence of arsenic, zinc or sulfur. This is obviously useful information, but sometimes a particular element—say arsenic—is present in a several types of different pigment molecules found on artwork. Using X-ray fluorescence you can find out that there’s an arsenic-based pigment inside, but you don’t know which one. Raman can get you the name of the pigment, such as realgar which is a pigment composed of both sulfur and arsenic and used in ancient Egypt. Now for the downside: Although Raman isn’t picky about the types of art it can study, the technique can be a royal pain-in-the-butt to get working in the field (or museum). Vandenabeele told me that, in particular, it can be extremely time consuming to properly focus the Raman equipment so that you actually get useful data. In contrast to X-ray fluorescence,...

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