New technology is revolutionizing the conservation of art through quantum leaps. Here are the tools that can protect your collection


The conservation of art is probably as old as artistic creation itself, but the field has changed considerably in recent years.

Not only have restorers developed new codes of ethics, they’ve also been inventive in poaching technologies in areas like biochemistry and geophysics to help them better understand works of art.

As New York University (NYU) Curator and Emeritus Professor Margaret Holben Ellis has said, many of the newer technologies in the field fall under the same theme: “Imaging, Imaging, Imaging.”

Some restaurateurs have the luxury of machines that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to look under the hood of multi-million dollar paintings. Other times the newer tools are custom open source software that can be used with a standard camera.

The profession that used to be called the restoration of works of art encompasses much more than simple repair. Conservators study how objects were made; assess their condition; determine the best way to stabilize them; and, if necessary, repair them, reversibly if possible.

Since artists are known to tap into the latest materials, from video to software, conservators must also keep pace. NYU even has a new program to train time media conservators, which encompasses everything from videotapes to websites. WAs far as possible, the restorers themselves consult the creators. The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York has formalized this process in its Media Preservation Initiative, in which artists advise on how their works can be preserved and repaired in the future.

Here are some of the smartest tools and technologies conservators use to investigate, preserve and repair valuable works of art.

X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF)

Corina Rogge scan Orange and black wall by Franz Kline. Photo by Sarah Hobson, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Conservators are always looking for ways to analyze works of art in a non-destructive way. A powerful tool in this effort, said Corey Rogge, a researcher at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, is X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF), a technique used to determine the elemental composition of materials, including those below the surface. of a table. .

Two years ago, the museum used these tools to analyze the works of Franz Kline Orange and black wall (1959) using a machine on loan from nSynergies which slightly exceeds Rogge’s budget (it costs about $ 350,000).

“We can see multiple iterations of the makeup,” Rogge said. “Some areas that are now black or white were once a bright red. We can get an idea of ​​how [Kline’s] the view of the work has evolved and changed, which is useful as most artists don’t write about their process.

Infrared heating tool

Non-contact infrared thermal tool, designed by Robin Hodgson.  Courtesy of the Williamstown Art Conservation Center.

Non-contact infrared heating tool, designed by Robin Hodgson. Courtesy of the Williamstown Art Conservation Center.

Not all museums have their own in-house curator, and institutions in the Northeastern United States rely on the Williamstown Art Conservation Center for help. One of its tools is a non-contact infrared thermal tool designed by an Australian engineer named Robin Hodgson—“A famous savior in the art conservation world,” said Maggie Barkovic, associate painting conservator at the center.

The device, said Barkovic, “allows us to work on raised, brittle and chipped paints to prevent fractures and loss of paint. This allows us to consolidate the peeling paint, or reattach it, safely, without touching the paint.

If a painting is damaged by fire, for example, its paint can become blistered.

“In localized cases, brittle heat blisters erupt after the fire and suffer loss, requiring immediate adhesion,” she said. “For paints that resist fire, the paint film is so brittle that humidification and a non-contact infrared heat tool [can be] necessary to avoid further losses.

3D Imaging and Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI)

June 23, 2021, Saxony-Anhalt, Eisleben: an excavation site is visible on the hill "Kleiner Klaus" above Helfta.  The rediscovered Royal Palace of Helfta (Mansfeld-Südharz district) is explored in a research excavation by the Saxony-Anhalt State Office for Monument Preservation and Archeology.  Archaeologists have started to uncover the foundation walls of the church of Emperor Otto the Great (912-973).  Photo: Ronny Hartmann / dpa (Photo by Ronny Hartmann / picture alliance via Getty Images)

An excavation of the recently rediscovered royal palace of Helfta. Photo: Ronny Hartmann / dpa (Photo by Ronny Hartmann / picture alliance via Getty Images)

Conservators do exciting work with 3D imagery, said Emily Frank, conservator at the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum and consultant at NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World.

“Especially with large monuments, you can collaborate on a global scale,” she said, which is especially important during the coronavirus pandemic, when scientists cannot freely travel to sites at the study. “With tools like this, you can detect changes in objects over time.”

Reflectance transform imaging is 2½D, Frank said. “You can use RTI to capture an image and run it through software and virtually move light around a surface at a level of detail. This is particularly useful for studying objects with inscriptions that need to be examined on a microscopic scale under grazing light.

“You often can’t move the ancient art because it’s huge, and since it’s often exposed to the sun all day long, it’s hard to see faded or shallow inscriptions,” she said.

But his work is often quite low-tech: “I often use inexpensive, out-of-the-box cameras to create cutting-edge outputs using free or open source software like ImageJ and Python. ”

Reflectance Imaging Spectroscopy (RIS)

Kathryn Dooley, imaging scientist, performs imaging for Giovanni Bellini and Titian The Feast of the Gods (1514/1529). Courtesy of the National Art Gallery.

If you’ve watched the Mars Perseverance rover analyze the geology of the Red Planet, you’re familiar with a technology that John Delaney, senior imaging scientist at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, uses to explore works by art.

While NASA uses reflectance imaging spectroscopy (RIS) to look for minerals that may have formed under aqueous conditions (the fundamental conditions of life as we know it), Delaney uses RIS to identify minerals in them. paintings by artists such as Giovanni Bellini and Jackson Pollock.

An emerging field in museums, the RIS is only used in a handful of institutions.

“Companies sell hyperspectral imaging cameras, which are very popular in remote sensing of the Earth, but they are much brighter conditions than museums,” Delaney said. “We have to modify them to increase their sensitivity, so we are setting up our own camera systems. ” Large institutions like the National Gallery in London and the Getty Museum in California follow his example.

A recent project by Delaney was to study The Feast of the Gods (1514/1529), a canvas painted by Bellini and later modified not only by Dosso Dossi but also by Titian, to determine which artist was responsible for which elements of the painting, and to create an image of what the work before Dossi and Les interventions du Titien.


Panel One, Panel Two and Panel Three (Harvard Mural Triptych) by Mark Rothko, with colors restored using digital projector light in the Harvard Murals exhibition by Mark Rothko, presented at Harvard Art Museums on November 16, 2014 as of July 26, 2015 © 2014 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.  Photo: Peter Vanderwarker;  courtesy of Harvard Art Museums

that of Mark Rothko Panel one, panel two and panel three (Harvard wall triptych), with colors restored using the light of digital projectors. © 2014 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Peter Vanderwarker; courtesy of Harvard Art Museums.

Another leader in the field is the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies at Harvard Art Museums, often referred to as the jewel in the crown of museums.

The Straus Center worked to triumphantly bring in a set of Mark Rothko’s murals that had been exposed to direct sunlight for decades back to public view. Using digital projections, its scientists were able to imitate the original appearance of the works.

During the analysis of the paints, the experts used LDI-TOF-MS (or – deep breathing! – laser desorption ionization time-of-flight mass spectrometry) to analyze the pigments in the paints.

The technology was presented to Straus by an expert in the pharmaceutical industry. “We were the lab that brought it to the field,” said Narayan Khandekar, director of the center.

To analyze the materials that bind the pigment together, they used (another deep breath!) LCMSMS (Tandem Microcapillary Liquid Chromatography Mass Spectrometry) and PMF (Peptide Mass Fingerprint).

These technologies allow incredibly precise and careful identification of materials. For example, LCMSMS helped determine exactly what type of eggs Rothko used in his binder.

“We can identify things down to the species level,” Khandekar said. “It may sound trite. But if you look at a medieval manuscript, maybe the artists used a chicken egg, not a duck egg or a goose egg. They made very specific choices.

“All of this information helps us know how to take care of objects,” he said. “The best form of conservation is preventive.

Despite all the bells and whistles, the ultimate ending remains the same.

“The goal hasn’t changed at all, which is to understand art, what it means, how it’s made, what it’s made of and how to take care of it,” he said. “These simple goals are still in place, even though we have sophisticated tools to answer these questions. That’s the whole story. “

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