October 12, 2009

Research to Help Lengthen the Life of Paintings

Post-GazetteNOW says:
"A lot of art conservation is not a restorative process. It's a maintenance ... that tries to slow down the hand of time," said Dr. Whitmore, who has been with the (Art Conservation Research Center at Carnegie Mellon University) for 21 years. "Very often we're trying to keep beautiful objects that are already in good condition from turning into rubble."

In a sense, the center has been trying to transform the "art" of preserving art into a science since 1950. It focuses on how to expand the lifespan of cultural artifacts, historical documents and books. For the most part, it works with simulation artwork to determine how a piece may react to various stresses so that actual pieces are not damaged in the process.

Its studies help museums and collectors around the world learn what conditions (such as exposure to light, temperature and humidity) a piece can withstand with minimum amount of damage over time.

Among its inventions, it has created a machine known as the microfading tester, which studies how light affects a particular piece of art by shining a pinpoint of light into it, catching the reflection and analyzing any color change that may occur.

This is used mainly to study works of art where color is essential to the piece's beauty or value. Invented 15 years ago, the machine is now being used by more than a dozen museums worldwide. The center also will do tests for the Carnegie Museum of Art and for other institutions on a contract basis.

"They're a significant contributor to conservation science and research. Very significant," said Jim Coddington, the chief conservator for the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Mr. Coddington said MoMA uses CMU's microfading tester and has followed the center's research for 22 years.

"It really would be devastating [if the center didn't exist]. ... In that sense, I do think it's irreplaceable. Not that nobody else can do the work, but nobody has set up a research institute dedicated to these fundamental subjects of science. The Smithsonian does similar work, but any time you cut the research by half or a third, the impact is huge," Mr. Coddington said.

The CMU center has also conducted research with synthetic resins -- used especially in modern art, the use of spray solvent vapors to analyze degrading documents and testing materials using "breathalyzer tests."

"We're trying to learn the condition of art objects by smelling their breath," Dr. Whitmore said.
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(Photo at top by Michel Sauret for Post-GazetteNOW)

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