A day in the life of heritage science students at Hellens Manor

Our final guest post for British Science Week 2018, #BSW18, comes from Gavin Leong, a student on the SEAHA MRes course. In this post Gavin reflects on the SEAHA cohort’s visit to Hellens Manor, which took place earlier in British Science Week, to analyse paintings using hyperspectral imaging techniques and carry out environmental monitoring and risk assessments that will inform future approaches to collection care.

Every year, a new roster of Masters students from EAHA visit a lovely old country house sat in scenic Herefordshire. But, far from a holiday or a retreat, these students are here to carry out research. And this isn’t any old house, it’s one of the few surviving 12th century English abodes, Hellens Manor.

Today is Tuesday 13th March 2018, it’s 9.25 AM and the sun is just peeking out of the clouds over Hellens. The imaging group are about to head out to Bloody Mary’s room, a place said to be haunted. But instead of looking for paranormal activity, for the past two days they’ve been painstakingly taking images of paintings using multispectral imaging and infrared reflectography. The former was used as a rapid survey of the ultraviolet, infrared and visible spectrum, while the latter can reveal underdrawings.

With the camera equipment, lighting and cables strewn across the floor they resemble a film crew on the set of a period drama. The stars in this production are two paintings, on canvas and panel. Today, however, they will be using hyperspectral imaging to analyse areas of the paintings with similar composition and pigmentation, which can highlight more modern modifications to the paintings.

It’s now 11.35 AM. The environmental monitoring group are taking advantage of the abundant sunlight, a welcome respite after the recent bout of heavy snow and rain. They’re in the stone hall, where you can find an impressive fireplace that bears the crest of Edward, the Black Prince. But their eyes are drawn to the two equally compelling tapestries. One half of the team are thermal imaging, and measuring the UV and intensity of light falling on the woven fabric, while the other half are assessing its condition using a handheld microscope.

Image of thermal imaging at Hellens Manor by SEAHA students
Thermal imaging at Hellens Manor by SEAHA students

 

Image of condition assessment of tapestry at Hellens Manor using a handheld microscope
Assessing the condition of a tapestry at Hellens Manor using a handheld microscope.

Later, they’ll be setting up a camera for digital image correlation to observe any deformation or small changes in strain of the tapestries. By correlating these changes with measurements of fluctuation in humidity, temperature and light in the room, it could contribute to recommendations on best practice for conserving the tapestries in the stone hall.

On any other day it would be difficult for any passing observer to spot the risk assessment group. But not today. It’s 3.17 PM and they’ve donned bright yellow disposable overalls and face masks for the sake of heritage science. Dubbed ‘Minions’ by one of their group members, they have the unenviable task of crawling under the Munthe ‘Cinderella-style’ dress carriage built in the 1860s to get to the back wall of the coach shed. But it was not in vain: there they find the elusive mould, predicted by the humidity and moisture assessment, on the red silk.

Image of looking for mould at Hellens Manor
Looking for mould at Hellens Manor

The carriages had not been assessed prior to the work by the team. With the fibre and pest identification, moisture content survey of the wood and corrosion assessment of the metal, the risk assessment group can present a strong case for the future management of the carriages.

Image of pest identification
Pest identification (carpet wool larvae)

To find out more about studying Heritage Science at the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Science and Engineering in Arts, Heritage and Archaeology, visit the SEAHA website. The Centre is currently advertising several studentships with mid-April application deadlines.

 

Advanced imaging technologies uncover hidden details on Rubens paintings

Next in our British Science Week 2018 series, Historic Royal Palaces’ Senior Conservation Scientist Dr Constantina Vlachou-Mogire tells us about investigating the Rubens ceiling paintings at Banqueting House…

Historic Royal Palaces is preparing for the 400th anniversary of the Banqueting House, which will take place in 2022. During this major project we have a rare opportunity to access and study in detail the Rubens ceiling paintings, their fabrication technique and current condition.

The Banqueting House is the last surviving building of Whitehall Palace which was destroyed by fire in 1698 (Figure 1). Set within a decorative coffered ceiling designed by the building’s architect, Inigo Jones are nine paintings by Rubens, the artist’s largest and most accomplished works to remain in the context for which they were designed. The paintings were commissioned in about 1629 by Charles I as a testament to the glory of the Stuart monarchy through the depiction of his father James I’s life and achievements.

My beautiful picture
The Main Hall at Banqueting House

These internationally significant paintings are an integral component of the architecture of the hall. Originally the Banqueting House Rubens ceiling paintings were oil-on-canvas stretched on strainers, but since 1907, they were attached to plywood boards. During their long history the paintings have been restored nine times—including in 1940 when they were cut up to evacuate the gigantic panels from the building.

High-resolution multi-spectral imaging

Figure2_MultispectralImages_2018-03-12
Figure 2: Details of the multispectral gigapixel images of The Apotheosis of King James I panel (a. visible light, b. infrared reflected, c. ultraviolet-induced luminescence)

The first phase of our project involved capturing the condition of the paintings in high resolution images (Figure 2). The scale of the paintings, covering a total surface of 243 m2, and their position 17 m from the ground, made this task particularly challenging; however, recent advancements in digital photography helped us to overcome these difficulties.  Collaboration with imaging specialists developed the application of GigaPan technology to document all nine paintings from the ground in visible light and infrared light as panoramic ‘Gigapixel’ images. Ultraviolet-induced luminescence images were taken at close-range from a scaffold, by illuminating small sections of the painting and later stitching the images together to full-painting size. Superimposing the visible, infrared and ultraviolet images allows analysis and detailed classification of the current condition of the paintings as a standing record. This will underpin further investigations and inform the programme of conservation of these important paintings.

We would like to thank the following external collaborators for their expert insights and contributions to the successful progress of this cross disciplinary project: UV/IR imaging Dr Giovanni Verri (Courtauld Institute of Art) and Steven Paine (Paine & Stewart), 3D laser scanning, visible ‘Giga’ imaging John Hallett Jones (Glanville Consultants).

Assessing the light fastness of 16th century Indian paintings (Michela Rampa)

Next in our British Science Week 2018 series, Michela Rampa talks about her student placement at The British Museum, analysing colours in 16th century Indian paintings and assessing light sensitivity. Find out more at The British Museum’s British Science Week event on Saturday 17 March.

Hello, my name is Michela Rampa. I am a student from the University of Rome, La Sapienza, in Italy where I am studying to become a museum scientist. I am currently doing a student placement at The British Museum for my final dissertation. What a fantastic opportunity!

At The British Museum I am based in the Scientific Research Department but also regularly meet with conservators. I am learning how to assess whether museum objects might fade when exposed to light using “microfadeometry”. Microfadeometry is a technique that involves exposing a very small area on an object to an intense light for a short amount of time and recording the colour change on this small area. By comparing the colour change with references, it is possible estimate whether the object is sensitive to light or not.

Michela Rampa BM image1
Examination of a 16th century Indian painting

Why is it so important to assess the lightfastness of museum objects? Many museum objects are light sensitive, for instance: watercolours, prints or textiles. We cannot stop fading from occurring when these objects are displayed, but we can ensure that light-sensitive objects fade so slowly that they will be seen by countless generations of visitors to the Museum in the future. Knowing if an object is likely to fade when exposed to light helps curators to decide how long  it can be displayed and under which conditions. For example, microfading tests carried out on Hokusai’s iconic prints ‘The Great Wave’ and ‘Red Fuji’ last year showed that these should be displayed using dim light for a short amount of time (read about it here).

Michela Rampa BM image 2
Experimental Technical Imaging laboratory in The British Museum

I am currently investigating the lightfastness of some Indian paintings, which will go on display in the new Albukhary Foundation Galleries of the Islamic World at the end of this year. One of them is a very colourful Hamzanama painting made in 1500. (Hamzanama is a series of manuscripts, most of them illustrated, that narrate the legendary deeds of Amir Hamza, the uncle of prophet Muhammad). It is very valuable and I have identified at least 13 different colours on it! I expected that most colours on this painting were produced using mineral pigments and therefore would not fade. However, I am discovering that, on the contrary, several colours, such as green, are light sensitive! I am hoping to perform more analysis to find out why these colours are affected by light. Work in progress!

In the meantime, if you want to know more about the work scientists do at the British Museum, please come and find me and the rest of the Scientific Research team at our annual event ZOOM IN: a closer look at science on Saturday 17 March 2018, 10.00 – 16.00, in the Great Court at The British Museum. Learn about all of the different techniques that are used to analyse the Museum’s collections, handle different kinds of raw materials and see the latest behind-the-scenes technology in action. This is a FREE event too!

Michela can be contacted by email and on LinkedIn. You can find out more about the upcoming Albukhary Foundation Galleries of the Islamic World on The British Museum website.

Five minutes with…Dr Bronwyn Ormsby, Senior Conservation Scientist, Tate

What’s your background in heritage science?

I loved art, art history and chemistry at school and did not know how to combine them into one career. I originally studied biochemistry at Sydney University (Australia) and stumbled into the conservation profession, volunteered for a while, worked as an assistant conservator, trained as a painting conservator at the University of Canberra (Australia) and worked for a number of years at the National Gallery of Australia (Canberra, Australia). It was during my time there I realised I was interested in exploring scientific questions around paint and conservation processes and made the decision to pursue a heritage science career. Moving back to science involved completing a 2-year post-graduate heritage science internship at the Hamilton Kerr Institute (Cambridge, UK) a doctorate at Northumbria University (Newcastle, UK, 1999-2002) which was primarily a chromatographic study of paintings by William Blake. Since 2003 I have been working at Tate, initially as a post-doctoral fellow (2003-2007), and now as one of two staff Conservation Scientists (2007- ).

Tate Britain
Tate Britain. Most of the conservation sections, including conservation science, are located at Tate Britain.

 

What’s your role at Tate?

The Tate Conservation Science department has two full-time scientists and one part-time preventive conservator. We work together to contribute to scholarship and collections care, and have specific scientific skills and areas of research, with some overlap and collaboration. I am responsible for the chemical analysis of samples removed from works of art with FTIR and GCMS, I also advise conservators about analysis and research, and translate scientific information. I lead research into the materials and conservation of modern and contemporary art which includes supervising post-doctoral, doctoral and pre-doctoral fellows/students/interns, publishing, giving workshops and presentations.

One area of ongoing research is to understand the constituents and properties of paints used by artists in the 20th and 21st centuries and to develop appropriate conservation treatments and preventive conservation strategies. As we are a small department we frequently collaborate with internal and external partners: sometimes we consult experts in particular materials or particular analytical/imaging techniques and our research projects are frequently highly collaborative.

Dr Bronwyn Ormsby at work
Dr Bronwyn Ormsby, loading up samples of paint into the PyGCMS autosampler for polymer analysis.© Tate

 

What’s been the most exciting or challenging thing you’ve worked on recently?

Two recent projects have both involved collaboration with The Dow Chemical Company (DOW), based in the US. One project focussed on developing cleaning systems for use on unvarnished modern and contemporary painted surfaces with Dow and the Getty Conservation Institute; this has now developed into continuous professional workshops for conservators (Cleaning Acrylic Painted Surfaces). The other project focussed on the Mark Rothko’s painting Untitled, Black on Maroon (T01170, 1958), which was vandalised at Tate Modern in 2012. For this, Dow scientists helped us out by exploring solvents for the safe removal the graffiti ink from the painting – I am very proud that the Project team and collaborators successfully enabled the redisplay of this painting in 2014.

Ink sampling Rothko vanadsiation
Dr Bronwyn Ormsby sampling the ink from Mark Rothko’s Untitled, Black on Maroon (T01170, 1958), soon after it was vandalised in 2012. © Tate

 

Who inspires you?

I am frequently inspired by my colleagues at Tate and around the world, as this is a profession that requires an authentic passion for art and lasting commitment. Many of us work in small teams or solo, and have to keep raising our own profiles as well as striving to stay relevant. I am also inspired by artists like Mark Rothko, who used paint materials to create works of art that encourage the kinds of visceral experiences normally reserved for places of worship. Having had the privilege to work very closely with one of his Seagram Mural paintings, I feel even more in awe of his achievements.

What do you love most about your job?

I love being so close to art on a daily basis and problem solving with such an extraordinary range of materials, works of art and issues.

In a single sentence, tell us what’s great about heritage science?

Heritage Science helps people to understand and value cultural heritage in the here and now, while also enhancing the chances of its survival into the future.