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Could an experimental set-up help save our art heritage?

Scientists have used STFC’s ISIS Neutron and Muon Source to test new non-destructive ways to prevent environmental damage to historical paintings.

Researchers from University College London (UCL) and Birkbeck University worked with STFC’s Dr Genoveva Burca to conduct new research into how irreplaceable paintings could be preserved – and the new methods could even lead to innovations in textile manufacturing.

Battling against the elements

You might think that there is no safer place for a canvas painting than a historic house or palace, but there are risks even there.

The cloth used on canvases is made of natural fibres from plants like hemp and cotton, and over time the changes in environmental conditions can begin to break down these fibres, causing damage to the painting.

Researchers have found that moisture levels, measured as relative humidity (RH), can be particularly damaging. For example, studies that looked at paintings done by Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dalí found that RH changes can lead to cracking in the paint layer and canvas damage.

Finding a treatment that does not damage the canvas can be tricky when trying to preserve precious paintings.

Did you know?

Salvador Dalí, a Spanish surrealist artist during the 20th century, drew some of his inspiration from contemporary scientific thinking at the time, like his painting ‘Galacidalacidesoxyribonucleicacid’ which was a tribute to Watson & Crick’s work on DNA structure.

Neutrons to the rescue

Neutron imaging techniques at ISIS Neutron and Muon Source (ISIS) provided a solution as a result of their non-invasive and non-destructive qualities.

This makes them ideally suited to investigating delicate and irreplaceable samples like historic paintings.

The team collaborated to use the unique ability of neutrons to monitor and map the distribution of moisture uptake and loss in canvas samples.

Rising to the challenge

The experiment required a custom-made humidity chamber and humidity controller for the neutron imaging measurements.

Both pieces of equipment were specially designed for the experiment by Lacerta Technology Ltd, with the humidity controller enabling a fully programmable RH profile to be designed for each experiment.

The team simplified the experimental set up by writing programming code to synchronise the recording of the humidity with the taking of the neutron radiographs at specific times – a set-up which could have uses in many more future experiments.

The samples measured on ISIS’ Imaging and Materials Science & Engineering (IMAT) instrument included canvases with and without different reinforcement treatments. The researchers were able to take a series of images that showed the real-time movement of moisture in the canvas over time and with a programmed increase in RH.

This experiment enabled them to evaluate the performance of the treated canvases and to determine which one would best protect canvases from moisture.

Dr Alexandra Bridarolli, now a postdoctoral fellow at the Getty Conservation Institute, USA, explains:

“We feel extremely lucky to have been able to use neutron radiography for this research. The spatial and temporal resolution offered by the technique helped us to expand our understanding of the impact newly developed reinforcement treatments can have on moisture uptake and loss in treated painting canvases.”

The study showed the potential of neutron imaging techniques to measure the effect of moisture on canvas paintings, highlighting how new and more experimental techniques could shape future research to help save our art heritage.

Dr Genoveva Burca, IMAT beamline scientist at STFC’s ISIS Neutron and Muon Source, concludes:

“This innovative interdisciplinary research on IMAT makes a significant contribution to the study of painting conservation and restoration and could lead to a variety of applications in the development of advanced textile materials.”

The full paper can be found at: Controlled Environment Neutron Radiography of Moisture Sorption/Desorption in Nanocellulose-Treated Cotton Painting Canvases (ACS Publications).

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Last updated: 15 June 2021


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