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The Science of Saving Art: Can Microbes Protect Masterpieces?

Art conservationists and scientists meet to discuss new way to preserve art



ISTOCKPHOTO/AUTOPOIESIS

Art conservationists, curators and scientists from around the world are gathering this week in Caracas, Venezuela, to address some of the burgeoning concerns about the state of art and artifact collections around the world—particularly those in tropical climes, which are under assault from mold, fungus and insects. At the Forum on Cultural Heritage Conservation, researchers are highlighting the many macro-abilities of microorganisms in the art world, which range from detecting whether a gallery's air quality might be harmful to delicate objets d'art to actually cleaning a dirty piece with helpful bacteria.

"Science has finally set a solid foot in the art world," says José Luis Ramirez, co-author of a 2005 study of the use of biotechnology in art preservation and director of the United Nations University's Program for Biotechnology for Lain America and the Caribbean (BIOLAC), which is an interdisciplinary school that promotes the use of biotechnology in fields from agriculture to manufacturing.

This event, which is sponsored by the U.N. and the Cultural Heritage Conservation Foundation (a nonprofit that promotes conservation), is convening with a packed house at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Caracas. This year's focus is on conservation of entire collections, many of which, Alvaro Gonzalez, director of Venezuela's Cultural Heritage Conservation Foundation, described in a statement, as being in "a state of emergency".

The current and future conditions of many tropical collections worry Ramirez, who notes that the climate in countries like Venezuela is "good for the number of species but bad for the number of pests." Unlike a typical North American museum, many institutions in Latin and South America are not equipped with air conditioners or other climate controls to regulate temperature and humidity. And as Ramirez notes, such basics have become even more rare in today's darkening financial landscape. "When you have an economy in trouble," he laments, "the first victim is the culture."

Nieves Valentine Rodrigo, a researcher at the Instituto de Patrimonio Cultural de España in Madrid, has found that certain microorganisms can be used to test for a host of possible threats to a collection, including humidity, air pollution, dust levels and even the impact of daily visitor foot traffic.

Although prevention is the theme of this year's forum, some researchers will present techniques for cleaning and restoring work that has already been damaged. More traditional methods, such as chemical pesticides and physical cleaning, can damage artwork and pose potential risks for people and the environment. "People have to find ways to counteract the pests using more gentle ways," says Ramirez. But advances in biotechnology have begun to give some conservators hope in mitigating the damage.

Giancarlo Ranalli, an Italian researcher in Pesche, Italy, and a presenter at the forum, has already used bacteria to clean the base of Michelangelo's Pietà Rondanini in Milan and another kind of bacteria to remove harmful animal glue from frescos in Pisa. Ramirez also describes the use of forensic DNA techniques to identify burrowing insects in wooden pieces from just minuscule droppings or a tiny body part so that the precise species can be identified and properly eradicated as well as the use of a process called biomineralization in which microbes, introduced to a crack in a stone sculpture, will deposit a calcium carbonate that picks up the color of the original while filling the gap.

A key to all of these techniques is careful observation during—and gentle cleaning after—treating a piece with any microorganisms, notes Ranalli in a paper set to be presented at the conference.

Ramirez says he's excited about the interest in the forum, noting that he had to cap enrollment year after being "overwhelmed by people." This is the fourth annual forum and is set to run through Thursday.

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