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Scientists, Curators Team Up To Stem Decay Of World’s Art, Cultural Heritage

February 9, 2009

Struggling to protect historic treasures in tight financial circumstances, heritage experts fear accelerating deterioration due to climate change

The growing relationship between scientists and curators is the focus of a 4-day, UN-affiliated international conference in Caracas designed to promote innovative ways to stem the decay of some of humanity’s greatest art and cultural treasures.

“With the world financial crisis and the advent of climate change effects, there is a state of emergency at the museums of several tropical countries: entire collections are compromised,” says Alvaro Gonzalez, a researcher at the Caracas-based Institute of Advanced Studies (IDEA) and Director of Venezuela’s Cultural Heritage Conservation Foundation, the host of the event.

Says Jose-Luis Ramirez, Director of the United Nations University’s Program for Biotechnology for Latin America and the Caribbean (UNU-BIOLAC), an event sponsor: “The normal concern about single artifacts is no longer paramount. Storing and protecting entire collections safely has become a priority and scientists have a key role: developing techniques and procedures that are fundamental to heritage conservation.”

Many of the world’s cultural treasures are creations made of organic materials such as paper, canvas, wood and leather which, in prolonged warmth and dampness, attract mold, micro-organisms and insects, causing decay and disintegration.

New biotechnology techniques to be described include the use of micro-organisms to remove fungus and other problems on artwork, photos, documents, masonry and more.

Prof. Giancarlo Ranalli, of the Universitá degli Studi del Molise in Pesche, Italy, for example, will describe his successful use of micro-organisms instead of chemicals to remove alterations black crusts, nitrates, sulphates and other alterations from masonry, as well as unwanted animal glue from important painted frescos in Pisa and elsewhere in Italy subjected to well-intentioned but ill-advised restoration and preservation attempts in the 1980s.

His masonry restoration work has including the base of Michelangelo’s Pietà Rondanini and the Cathedrals of Milan and Matera.

Similarly, Sofía Borrego Alonso of the Archivo Nacional de la República de Cuba, says using costly chemical biocides to combat infestations of microorganisms and insects, the principal agents of biodeterioration of cultural documents, not only harms the people that apply them, they accelerate the materials’ deterioration.

She will advocate the use of natural, plant-derived products successfully tested in Cuba’s National Archives.

Spanish researcher Nieves Valentin Rodrigo of the Instituto de Patrimonio Cultural de España, Madrid, takes the idea a step further, promoting the use of micro-organisms as biosensors to forewarn curators of potential risks to art objects from such threats as pollution and dust levels. She says fungi and bacteria can be harnessed to warn of significant environmental fluctuations and the impact of too many visitors.

According to Dr. Ramirez, curators in many developing countries, regardless of the type of collection they steward, all ask similar questions:

  • How to assess the vulnerability of objects;
  • How to improve storage conditions;
  • How to control exhibition or archive environments, especially in a tropical country with strictly limited means; and
  • How to set preservation and restoration priorities

In addition to biotechnologies, experts will revisit ancient ideas such as the Japanese technique of preserving frail items within multiple boxes. And they will highlight the potential use of Styrofoam packaging to economically protect items from rising heat, humidity and other environmental hazards.

Information to be shared includes how temperature, relative humidity, and dew point risk or benefit collections, the new technologies available to measure and analyze museum environment data, how to manage environments with minimal or no mechanical equipment and non-toxic, non-destructive treatments of cultural heritage items.

The Institute of History of Cuba will describe its innovative method to assess objectively the state of heritage photo and document collections, while experts from the Philippines will outline their system of ranking artwork restoration priorities.

Peru’s National Culture Institute will describe its efforts to inventory historic possessions not yet catalogued in 20 churches, monasteries and other entities, amid concerns about the safety of this cultural property from theft, vandalism or non-scientific restoration attempts that can irreversibly ruin or alter them.

Professor Fernando Diniz Moreira, of the Federal University of Pernambuco, Brazil, meanwhile, will warn of the need and challenges of conserving important 20th Century architecture in such countries as Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela, which produced many of the most important Latin American interpretations of the modern movement. He notes the fast ageing of modern buildings due to the use of materials not fully understood in terms of their long-term performance and the excessive functionalism of the buildings, which make new uses difficult.

Says UN Under Secretary-General Konrad Osterwalder, Rector of UNU: “The items in museum collections have timeless cultural, scientific and aesthetic values that we hold in trust for future generations. They also have great commercial value derived from exhibitions, souvenirs, tours and publications.

“Despite the current economic downturn, we all have a great responsibility to ensure historic objects are managed and used in a sound and sustainable way and to safeguard them from the potential effects of a warming planet.”

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