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HomeScienceAdditional safeguards for esteemed European artwork come at a minimal expense.

Additional safeguards for esteemed European artwork come at a minimal expense.


The Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice is using new material to protect its art collection. Credit: © s74, Shutterstock.com

Inexpensive new materials and sensors will help even small museums prevent irreversible damage to objects.

The former home of American art collector Peggy Guggenheim overlooks the waters of the Grand Canal in Venice and houses one of the most important collections of 20th-century works in Italy. Until recently, many of them were in danger from an unseen assailant: the acetic acid released from old wooden picture frames.

Chemists based in another famous Italian city, Florence, have created a new material that will protect works of art from acetic acid, formaldehyde, and other harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs) for 50 to 100 years.

Smart and cheap

“We made the first acetic acid-formaldehyde adsorbent using a very clever and cheap method,” said Piero Baglioni, professor of physical chemistry at the Center for Colloidal and Surface Sciences, or CSGI, at the University of Florence.

The material is flexible, biodegradable, and can absorb twice its weight in pollutants. It is mainly made from castor oil.

Curators of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection have sheets of them on the backs of the paintings and on a wall in one room, which include a 1929 painting by Wassily Kandinsky and a 1915 statue by Umberto Boccioni.

Since then, acetic acid levels in the room have dropped from two parts per million, high enough to damage artwork, to safe levels of 0.5 parts per million, according to Baglioni.

said Baglioni, who coordinated a research project called Apache which has developed a range of products designed to protect valuable works of art.

The discovery is likely to have a significant impact on the authenticity of future works of art, including those in storage. That’s because many galleries and museums store their collections in wooden containers, which release volatile organic compounds.

The Center Pompidou in Paris – home to Europe’s largest collection of modern and contemporary art – is testing the materials of its storage containers. The museum keeps most of its 120,000 pieces in wooden cases, including works by Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, and Georges Braque.

Scream test

Baglioni is also experimenting with materials in Norway’s Oslo Museum dedicated to Edvard Munch and displaying one of the artist’s most famous paintings – The Scream. Hundreds of Munch’s prints and drawings are kept in wooden drawers that cost a small fortune to change to new material, according to Baglioni.

In February, after the end of APACHE last year, his team put sheets of the material — each costing about 5 euros — into storage drawers and will check levels of VOCs in June.

“If it works, the museum will save a lot of money,” Baglioni said.

The product will soon be on the market for museums and galleries. It is also marketed as a way to purify the air in homes, hospitals, and offices. Volatile organic compounds make up 80% of indoor air pollutants and can affect people health.

Baglioni is working with researchers at Sweden’s Chalmers University to produce what they hope will be the world’s most effective and environmentally friendly material for absorbing volatile organic compounds.

APACHE has also developed sensors that cost just €0.10 each to monitor VOC levels. It will be made by the Italian company Goppion, which produces the display cases used by the Louvre Museum and other cultural institutions.

But the company, which was involved in the project, needs a broader order for production to be viable.

“If the market for this system was limited to museums and galleries, it wouldn’t be profitable,” Baglioni said. “So we have to find an additional use for them.”

invisible threats

Most of the threats to European masterpieces and historical artifacts are invisible to the naked eye: changes in temperature or humidity, ultraviolet radiation, small vibrations from visitor footfall or construction work as well as volatile organic compounds.

Even the type of building in which the business is located – modern or ancient, stone or wooden – affects them. Often, the effects only become visible once the damage has been done.

While large museums and art galleries can pay for multiple sensors to closely monitor their collections, smaller, cash-strapped institutions struggle to meet international standards on maintenance and storage.

said Marie-Dominique Bruni, program director at the French Commission for Atomic and Alternative Energies, also known as CEA.

Bruni has coordinated a project called SensMat which has developed sensors and software to monitor up to 12 different environmental factors—from dust levels to vibration—and alert custodians of risks to art in their care so they can act before damage occurs.

“We’re facilitating the way they collect and interpret this data to determine how best to display an exhibit, or what to change if its environment puts it at risk of spoilage,” Bruni said.

This could mean changing the climate controls, limiting the number of visitors or moving the item to another room.

Metal objects, for example, can corrode in the wrong temperature, humidity, and light conditions.

“When this erosion becomes visible, it is too late,” Bruni said. “So we have to move things around or change the temperature and humidity to prevent them from eroding.”

Low frequency vibration is one of the most harmful effects. These can not only come from visitor footfall and construction work but also from vehicular traffic.

“Museums need to diagnose the impact of the vibrations,” Bruni said. “Frescoes painted on walls or ceilings and objects made with different layers are particularly at risk.”

software success

Museums and galleries are increasingly lending collections to each other, a practice that creates new challenges for moving and displaying objects.

“Museums and galleries must ensure that they will not jeopardize the objects they receive,” Bruni said. “Our software can help them determine what conditions are needed before they receive new things. Insurance companies are very interested in this kind of information.”

SensMat, which ran from January 2019 until August 2022, has worked with museums in seven European countries including Denmark, France, Germany and Italy.

“It was really important to do studies in different climates and locations,” Bruni said.

This means being able to develop solutions suitable for a wide range of scenarios. The SensMat team hopes its findings will be used to help update international recommendations on how objects should be displayed and preserved.

Today Brunei is trying to find investors to complete the final stage of development and bring the software to market.

Large museums have expressed interest in the program, but the ultimate goal is to make it affordable for smaller galleries.

“We’ve had a lot of demand for the programme,” Bruni said. “We just need to develop it a little bit more. We’re almost done.”

Provided by Horizon: European Union Journal of Research and Innovation

the quote: For Priceless European Art, Extra Protection Costs Too Little (2023, May 2) Retrieved May 2, 2023 from https://phys.org/news/2023-05-priceless-european-art-extra.html

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