UK’s National Gallery holds an art/science exhibition

Priceless art works need to be restored, cleaned, and, sometimes even centuries later, authenticated. Art conservators at the UK’s National Gallery have been collaborating for years with EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council) scientists to find ways to make these activities less damaging. Generally, this is not considered the most exciting topic but in a bold move, the National Gallery has opened an exhibition (Close Examination) featuring their art/science collaboration with EPSRC. From the news item on,

Close Examination explores the pioneering work of the National Gallery’s Scientific Department by presenting the varied and fascinating stories behind more than 40 paintings in the National Gallery’s collection. The exhibition is arranged over six rooms, representing some of the major challenges faced by Gallery experts: Deception and Deceit; Transformations and Modifications; Mistakes; Secrets and Conundrums; Redemption and Recovery; and a special focus room relating to Botticelli. [emphases mine] The exhibition features works by Raphael, Dürer, Gossaert, Rembrandt and others.

The partnership between the National Gallery and EPSRC has highlighted the contribution that science and scientists make in the world of art and shows the intellectual value that emerges when scientific and artistic traditions come together. EPSRC, together with Arts and Humanities Research Council, funds a Science and Heritage Programme which aims to increase knowledge and the resilience of our cultural heritage in the face of twenty first century challenges.

I came across a similar collaboration between the Art Institute of Chicago and a chemist at Northwestern University who’d created a technique for another use altogether that the Institute’s conservators adapted. From The Nanotech Mysteries wiki page,

Richard Van Duyne, then a chemist at Northwestern University, developed the technique in 1977. Van Duyne’s technology, based on Raman spectroscopy which has been around since the 1920s, is called surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy’ or SERS “[and] uses laser light and nanoparticles of precious metals to interact with molecules to show the chemical make-up of a particular dye.”

The conservators at the Institute were able to scrape off the most minute amounts of paint from a Winslow Homer painting in their efforts to examine the pigments and eventually restore the painting to its original colours. You can go here to see the painting that the conservators were trying to restore and to slide a button that will change the colours to their original shades.

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