in Every Job is a STEAM Job

How Art Conservationists Use STEAM Skills to Restore Priceless Works

One of the biggest mistakes that parents, teachers, administrators, and even kids make is separating science and technology from art. Not only is technology often used to create art, but artists use a variety of principles and elements from chemistry, biology, and physics to create their works. A watercolor painting is actually a science experiment that explores the use of water and various colors.

Within the art world, conservationist and restoration specialists use STEAM techniques to bring back lost pieces and learn about existing designs. There are dozens of tools that are helping historians and museum curators explore important works. Here’s how today’s art conservationists preserve and restore art to save it for future generations.  

Art is Delicate and Constantly Changing

From the moment a piece of art is complete, it starts to change. From a piece of macaroni falling off a child’s craft masterpiece to paint cracking on a priceless Dali, art is fighting the elements.

There are dozens of factors that can tear apart a painting, senior conservator Peggy Van Witt at Van Witt Fine Art Conservation explains. Improper storage and display can lead to yellowing, cracking, and fading. Conditions that are too moist or too dry can damage a painting, as can natural light, smoke, mildew, and dust.

Damage not only decreases the value of the painting, it can hide important details and elements from historians and museum curators. And the restoration process is, as Van Witt says, “an art in and of itself.”

“A painting will change from the moment it’s made so there’s no chance of restoring it to the way it looked when it was first made,” Aviva Burnstock, head of conservation and technology at London’s Courtauld Institute of Art, tells CNN. “But you can appreciate how it might have looked by doing the research that’s needed and present it in the best way it can be presented.”

This is a challenge that restorers of all art forms face. Isabel Thottam at Art Business News writes that modern art can be just as difficult to restore as ancient pieces. In the past century, artists have tested multiple types of acrylics and multimedia pieces with various different materials and textures. If restorers aren’t careful, they could damage one part of an art piece while restoring another.

Conservationists have perforce developed impressive tools for the trade, thereby changing the field of art restoration itself.

STEAM Professionals Develop New Restoration Opportunities

Today’s art conservationists come from a variety of backgrounds. Chemists are essential to understanding the makeup of various pieces. In fact, “art and chemistry have been linked since the day the first cave dweller smeared mineral pigments on a rock wall,” the ACS Undergrad team writes.

Historians, physicists, and technology experts also lend their skills to the art world, with digital tools often working hand-in-hand with old-fashioned restoration techniques. David Steel, curator of European Art at North Carolina Museum of Art, for instance, teamed with a conservation specialist to recreate a missing panel of a 14th century Italian altarpiece that had been broken apart and sold to various museums and collectors in the 19th century.

Only eight out of nine panels have been recovered to this day, but Steel created a layout for what the missing panel would look like and recreated it using 14th century materials and techniques. This replacement panel was used to display the altarpiece in full, and guests could also see digital recreations of what the art would have looked like in the 1370s when it was first created. Chemistry, technology, and creative thinking all worked together to reunite a piece of art, thought to have been lost.

Technology Allows Hands-Off Restoration

One of the main benefits of technology is that art professionals can work on the piece without ever actually touching it. Most recently, art restoration specialists started using 3D printing to analyze destructive build-up on paintings.

The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe use high-grade images from multiple sources of light, including frequencies beyond the visible spectrum, instead of taking physical samples from the paintings. Buildup is a problem for multiple museums that feature 20th century paintings, as the original oils mix with drying agents that were popular at the time.

The O’Keeffe is working with Northwestern University and the Art Institute of Chicago to create a digital option for museum curators to upload work to identify damage, bypassing the need for destructive sampling of the original artwork.

Restorers are also using projectors and playing with different types of light to broadcast colors.

In an article for Creators by Vice, Noémie Jennifer describes the use of projection mapping to determine the colors of historic works. The projector “reads” a painting’s current colors, determines what they would have looked like when the piece was created, and then projects those colors onto the art to display it in a restored form.

This tool has been used to show what paintings from 50 years ago might have looked liked in their original form, as well as what ancient Egyptian temple scenes might have been, long before being displayed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Restoration is Aided By Digitization

Not only does technology help the restoration process, it also makes it easy to ensure the future preservation of the art.

The Conservation Center in Chicago digitally reproduces artifacts and works of art on archival paper with archival ink and then provides multiple digital storage options. Both private families and professional curators can focus on preserving delicate documents while displaying, studying, and handling their replicas.

One moving story follows a family restoring their father’s WWII journals which had drawings and stories about children rescued from concentration camps. These are deeply personal projects but also historically significant.

Restoration Shows the Process of Creating Art

Not only are art professionals using technology to restore art, they’re finding ways to learn more about the creation process.

Art dealer Philip Mould demonstrated the power that x-rays have to uncover the history and stories behind paintings. One x-ray discovered that a painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds of Admiral Anson contained the portrait of a head underneath. Experts believe the artist painted a face and covered it to start the painting over again.

The same technology discovered that an Adrian Vanson painting actually had a portrait of Mary Queen of Scots underneath it.

Brigit Katz at Smithsonian Magazine says restorers from UCLA and the National Gallery of Art used a new approach when analyzing Egyptian Fayum portraits from the second century.

Combining multiple light and x-ray technologies, researchers learned about the different materials painters used from iron earths for the hair to red ochre and lead for the skin tone  as well as the different utensils and tools used for painting, including a fine hair brush and metal spoon. This information would have been unimaginable a few years ago, but modern restoration efforts are changing the game.

Inventors Develop Technology to Help Curators

Today’s art restoration tools are often created because of the needs of art curators and museums.

For example, multispectral cameras can be used to capture wavelengths and understand the different layers of a painting. Andy Wilson, founding editor of Vision Systems Design, describes how some cameras use glass filters to form images on different bands of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Depending on what layers and light are used, art restorers can learn whether the painting was retouched or study the underdrawings on canvas, providing more insight into historic works of art.

Technology Can Preserve Art Across the World

Technology is also used to restore and protect pieces of art that are still in the field or are at risk of destruction.

Iranian-American artist Morehshin Allahyari creates 3D replicas of artifacts and buildings lost to ISIS. These are sculptures and works of art that have survived centuries, but crumbled at the hand of terrorism.

Archaeologists and artists might not be able to fly to the Middle East to reclaim these monuments just yet, but they can create replicas so we don’t forget the history and culture behind them. This is Allahyari’s goal.

Fortunately, she’s not alone. Dr. Alexy Karenowska, a physicist at the University of Oxford, designed 3D cameras that can be sent to war zones and potential hotspots for terrorism in the Middle East.

Karenowska and her team hope to hand out 5,000 of these $27 cameras and collect more than one million images of different historic locations and monuments. Not only will this make repair and replication efforts easier in the future, it also prevents groups like ISIS from trying to sell priceless artifacts as finds from the 1800s.

Conservationists are Already Looking to the Future

Technology has dramatically changed the art world, and restoration specialists are already looking to the future, and the challenges that digital media present.

The Current Museum of Art in New York City is a non-profit dedicated to preserving digital art. Their curators explain that with the rate at which technology is progressing, some pieces of digital art are inaccessible today. Most museums either don’t have the machines to access the content or the support to maintain them. The lost Andy Warhol art that was housed on floppy disks is a great example of this.

“We may look backwards in a hundred years and have only the foggiest recollection of who, what, when, where, why we created what could become some of our most important art,” Will Nathan, the museum founder, tells Seth Porges at Forbes.

Nathan isn’t the only one who is concerned. Tech giant Google recently formed a partnership with Rhizome, a company that works to preserve digital and web-based artwork in order to protect it from obsolescence and degradation of storage media.

Not only are these companies worried about technology growing obsolete, they’re also worried about storage loss. What happens when art saved on a CD gets tossed in the trash? What happens when a computer crashes and the work can’t be recovered? Technology is more delicate than we might think.