Art Conservation Research Center seeks to lengthen lifespan of valuable artifacts

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Art is a fragile patient in the world of conservation.

The clock is always ticking, and anything from light to humidity to temperature can cause an art piece to slowly deteriorate.

Worst of all, researchers can't "operate" on a masterpiece to figure out how to save it.

"If a doctor takes a blood sample from a patient, that person's body will replace the blood taken. With a piece of art, it doesn't work that way. With art objects, if you take samples away, you create a hole," said Dr. Paul Whitmore, the director of the Art Conservation Research Center at Carnegie Mellon University.

Creating holes is the exact opposite of what museums and conservators want. That's where research performed by the CMU center comes in to try to preserve art.

"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 center 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 It focuses on how to expand the lifespan of cultural artifacts, historical documents and books.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.

When certain artifacts decompose, they give off chemical compounds, which provides clues about the object's durability. He compared it to the smell of a new car or an old book that's become musty over time.

The center's work is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which covers the $1 million in annual costs for staff salaries, graduate student stipends and equipment.

The staff includes Dr. Whitmore, a deputy director, four staff scientists, two post-doctorate fellows and two graduate students.

Its laboratory has eight instruments used for chemical analysis. Each ranges in cost from $25,000 to $100,000. They also work with an environment control room the size of a dorm room to test how materials behave at particular temperatures and humidity.

Although affiliated with CMU, the center doesn't work directly under any museum, library or archive. This makes it one of two independent centers in the nation. The other is the Image Permanence Institute at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.

"This lack of an affiliation has one main advantage: We are not obliged to do work aimed at a particular collection or object," Dr. Whitmore said.

Dr. Whitmore, who received his doctorate in physical chemistry from University of California, Berkeley, became involved in the center because it combines his personal passions for both art and science.

"This effort to maintain culture is global ... [It makes] the argument for our better nature, by presenting and preserving the evidence of what is good about us, the most beautiful and sublime expressions of humankind."

Michel Sauret can be reached at 412-263-1478 or .


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