How to Make a Painting Last Forever Light, temperature, and air pollution can wreck works of art. How do museums protect and preserve artistic and historic artifacts for the ages? Experts from the Getty Conservation Institute discuss the finer points of paint makeup and how to optimize conditions in museum galleries.
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How to Make a Painting Last Forever

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How to Make a Painting Last Forever

How to Make a Painting Last Forever

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This is Talk of the Nation: Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, we'll be talking about the new stage play, "Frequency Hopping," that talks about the life of Hedy Lamarr, who also happened to be an inventor. But first, art conservation and the science behind it. If you've ever visited an art museum, you probably focused on the paintings or the sculptures, and didn't really pay much attention to the hard work behind the scenes, the hours of planning, study that make sure that the art is preserved for generations to come.

Even if a work of art is handled with kid gloves, there is light, the humidity, air pollution. These can all be deadly to treasured masterpieces, whether it's a Picasso hiding in MoMA, or an ancient pyramids sitting in the sands of Egypt. All these things sort of age and deteriorate with time, and it's a challenge to keep these works in tip-top condition.

And my next guests make their careers studying the ways that art can be destroyed and figuring out how to preserve it. They both come from the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles. Tim Whalen is director of that institute. Also with him is a member of the scientific team. Jim Druzik is senior scientist there and they both join from our studio at NPR West. Welcome to Science Friday.

Mr. TIMOTHY WHALEN (Director, Getty Conservation Institute): Thank you, Ira. Thank you for having us.

Mr. JAMES DRUZIK (Senior Scientist, Getty Conservation Institute): Thank you.

FLATOW: Tell us what the definition of works of art are. We're talking about a Picasso, and his paintings and sculptures. Is it much broader than that?

Mr. WHALEN: We think of conservation as a field that cares for the cultural heritage. So, works of art that hang in museums that we'd all be familiar with, but also, as you suggest, the pyramids in Egypt, the grotto caves on the Silk Road in China, and historic buildings that we all live with around the world - around the country.

FLATOW: Let's talk about the kinds of problems you have to deal with in - let's start first inside a museum. I have a picture in my mind that I'll never forget. I was in Florence years ago. I wanted to visit the Uffizi, and of course, half of it was closed for renovation. But the windows were wide open and you have this blue exhaust smoke from all the traffic just wafting into the museum, and I couldn't believe they're allowing this to happen. I would imagine that traffic and air pollution must be a major problem in museums.

Mr. WHALEN: Well, it is a big issue. In this country, most museums, art museums - you mentioned MoMA, the Getty museum - all have very sophisticated air-conditioning systems. But you were just talking about energy conservation, and it's very expensive to keep a museum cool and keep the humidity at a stable level, and it's something that we're beginning to think about and rethink given those issues. But indeed, those air-conditioning systems are part of what we would call preventive conservation, and it's something we think about all the time. What's that environment that protects and preserves works of art?

FLATOW: Is there an ideal temperature and humidity for artwork?

Mr. DRUZIK: Well, we have values we can give for ideal temperature and humidity. But for most objects, it's pretty much determined by their particular history and the composition that the artist or a craftsman made them out of. So, it's a wide variety. We like to say that on average, museum collections would be quite happy at 50-percent relative humidity and around 70 degrees, plus or minus two degrees, Fahrenheit, or maybe plus or minus five degrees in relative humidity.

However, these are somewhat arbitrary, and they're extraordinarily difficult to really achieve even with modern HVAC technology. You know, Ira, it's very expensive to humidify buildings, especially in California. We noticed that, you know, it's very hot outside in Los Angeles today. To keep the humidity up requires the expenditure of enormous amounts of humidity. So, the conservation field has been spending a lot of research effort just trying to determine how much and to what extent those environmental conditions can be relaxed and still come up with a reasonably ideal environment for long-term preservation.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. We're talking about the art conservation. Also, on Second Life at Science Friday Island and at the team - the Teen Grid. Let's talk about light, because I imagine that light mumps (ph) must be one of the most difficult things to control and to keep from - we know light degrades images and photographs, photos and artwork. And I imagine that's why they - you're never allowed to take a flash picture inside an art museum. Jim, tell us about that problem.

Mr. DRUZIK: Well, of all the environmental parameters that you mentioned, Ira, relative humidity, there's engineering solutions that work very well for that. Air pollution can be controlled. You can even design a building so that materials used inside have minimal auto-air-polluting qualities to reduce formaldehyde and form a castor (ph), for example. But when it comes to light, there's an inherent problem, because you need a certain amount of light in order to make an object visible and color-rendering appreciable to the visitor.

At the same time, virtually all light at those levels is damaging, and there's virtually no level of light below which you can satisfy the condition that both you can render color accurately and there's no damage. So we have a problem with light in that exhibiting it necessarily involves accepting a certain control rate of deterioration. Our job now is to determine how best to provide a good experience for the visitor, make the curator's message clear and accurate and reduce deterioration rate as much as possible. And the field has spent probably more than 100 years working on this and technology has been ramping up.

And today, we have some additional tools we can use to reduce light damage. When you look at an exhibition at the Getty Museum we recently installed, you'll see watercolors that are 400 years old. Yet, if I told you that they came from the artist's hand yesterday, there would be no indication on those watercolors that you could find that would prove otherwise. That's because they've had benign environments, and we struggle to keep light levels under control. Light is the number one killer.

FLATOW: And so you must be constantly researching things about light.

Mr. DRUZIK: Constantly. Since 2002, we've had an active research program that has looked at virtually all aspects of the total picture from how we can filter existing light sources to providing more benign environments around the immediate artwork to take the oxygen out of the photo oxidation process. We've looked at better risk management tools, some computer-based, some just pretty logical and we've looked at educational and outreach programs.

Also in somewhat relationship to the earlier speakers, we also have to pay a lot of attention to what energy policy is doing in this country, because lighting consumes enormous amounts of power generally, and we'll be seeing compact fluorescent and LED lighting creeping into museums more and more. We really have to know that.

FLATOW: Yeah. But power, aside from an LED, you may not get the exact color that you want from this, will you?

Mr. DRUZIK: No. That's correct, you won't. At the present time, actually, there are two types of LEDs we can be talking about. White LEDs, which are created basically by UV striking a white-fluorescent compound and it's essentially a version of fluorescent lighting like that. And the other are multi-colored LEDs put together to combine to make white light. At this point, the color rendering of both those do not match incandescent lighting or daylight. They don't even come close in many cases.

So, there is research going on trying to bring up what we would call the color-rendering index of these more efficient lighting sources. And I think it's a matter of technology in overcoming some problems with individual LED chemistries, that it will sooner or later be accomplished. But even when it is accomplished and the color is fine, we still have to do the fundamental studies to determine, is it going to make that blue or that red fade faster or slower? We have to know that because we then have to set the hourly exposure kind of conditions.

FLATOW: Right. Right. Do you ever know exactly what the right light should be? I mean, you were not in the - you were not in Da Vinci's studio or Picasso's when they painted the painting. You don't know what kind of light they worked at. Do you?

Mr. DRUZIK: Yeah. That's - this is brought up art historically a lot, and no, we don't know. We know what they didn't have, but...

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Mr. DRUZIK: What was actually used in the creation of that particular work of art is purely conjectural. So, we have to make some general assumptions that it's going to be either day - a version of daylight, or what we would call black-body radiator, which is, you know, a candle.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. DRUZIK: Or a hot-light source, like that. And we do the best we can, with our availing - available track lighting, but I don't think anybody actually tries to create the actual ambiance. We can use supplemental lighting. In a recent exhibition that I saw, supplemental lighting was used to create an ambiance of a Sinai monastery, but that was mood lighting...

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Mr. DRUZIK: The actual illumination was strictly...

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. DRUZIK: (Unintelligible) 21st century.

FLATOW: Mm-hm. Tim, I know your institute studies salt-damaged art, and being out there on the coast, I imagine that's a big problem. Tell us about that.

Mr. WHALEN: Well, salt damage happens virtually everywhere, in New York, in Los Angeles, and in fact, you mentioned the pyramids. We're working in Egypt now, in the Valley of the Queens, where the rising humidity levels and kind of uncontrolled irrigation are causing all sort of challenges in the painted tombs, in the Valley of the Queens, and at archaeological sites generally. What happens is the humidity in the air and in the soil, causes soluble salts to crystallize, and begins push paint off painted walls, or causes stone to crack and break apart. And it's a circumstance that can happen virtually anywhere, including here in LA.

FLATOW: Mm-hm. And you have salt maybe wicking up into the foundation or out of the ground?

Mr. WHALEN: It's - that's - it's exactly what happens.


Mr. WHALEN: One of the projects we're very involved in is at the Mogao Grottoes on the Silk Road in western China, and this is an extraordinary site. We've been working on one cave that was painted in the 9th century. And what happens when tourists come into the room at any one time, the humidity level peaks very quickly, and then the moisture is left on the walls, and then it activates the salts, and it then begins to deteriorate the grout that holds the paint on the walls and the paint starts falling off.

And so we're trying to figure out not just how to keep that paint on the wall, but maybe how to manage the site a little bit better, to keep massive numbers of tourist coming into rooms one at a time. So, conservation incorporates science, but it also incorporates the realm of management and preventative conservation is part of that.

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Mr. DRUZIK: One thing I'll add, Ira...


Mr. DRUZIK: Is that these particular caves are probably - they're - well, they're older than a millennia, and we've investigated the painting on the walls, and even after a thousand years, they're still being degraded by light that's coming through. So that the management plan involves control of, you know, future visitor-induced salt damage. But also, if you have to illuminate them for the visitors, and I must say, this is like what - the second or third-most popular tourist attraction in China, then the lighting has to be very seriously considered, too.

FLATOW: OK. We have to take a break. We'll come back and talk lots more with Jim Druzik and Tim Whalen about art conservation. They're at the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles. And your questions, stay with us. We'll be right back.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to Talk of the Nation: Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking about conservation, art conservation, with my guests, Tim Whalen and Jim Druzik, from the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. Let's see if we can get a phone call or two, and here - Roger in San Francisco. Hi, welcome to Science Friday.

ROGER (Caller): Yes. Thank you very much. I enjoy museums and I've been to many of them around the world, but I believe (unintelligible) was a couple of weeks ago, that I was in Washington, and I went to the Air and Space Museum. Now, I believe personally that humidity is the greatest cause of deterioration of art.

But what I noticed in Washington at the Air and Space, may be indicative of all museums, although it's not fine art. The question is the amount of people hitting a museum at one time. When I was there, I couldn't count the number of diesel buses pulling up to that museum and crowds of kids and grownups going into that museum.

FLATOW: Mm. All at the same time crowding in there.

ROGER: I honestly believe...


ROGER: That the answer is just control. Stagger, you know, schools sending their children to - into that museum at different times of the year, instead of waiting for the end of the year, and just piling them in there and also...

FLATOW: Let me get an answer, because we're running out of time. Tim, any reaction to that?

Mr. WHALEN: Well, Roger hits the nail on the head. One of the big issues for all museums and cultural-heritage sites is tourism, and I was talking about China, the fact that many, many people are coming to the site of Don Wong (ph), as one example of very, very many. And places like this, attract people. They're authentic. They're extraordinary places.

We don't want to keep people away from them, so we just have to learn how to manage them more effectively. The Air and Space Museum's pretty well air-conditioned, and the objects are pretty robust, so I'm not terribly worried. And it's a well-managed place. But I think our caller has - makes a great point.

FLATOW: Mm-hm. Go to the next call from Rick in Amelia, Ohio. Hi, Rick.

RICK (Caller): Hi. How're you doing?

FLATOW: Fine. Thank you.

RICK: Thank you so much. I have a question and a suggestion. Number one is that I have a beautiful airbrushed rendition of Kawana Parker, who was a Native American chief. But it was in an area that was - there were smokers in the house. And with the humidity, it created a bit of a hay of - you know, it just made contact...

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

RICK: And then the light areas, you can see where with humidity it made a little run.

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

RICK: Now I have experimented in areas of how to clean that off without using any chemicals. But since you're the experts, I thought I would ask, because I would like to take it and have it framed in a more appropriate frame.

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

RICK: Now, my suggestion is this. Save the artwork by studying the light that is best for the artwork, and what about on the creative side, coming up with a set of glasses that can be rented or bought, that a person could view the artwork, and get the best view of it in the work, but do the least amount of damage, and I'll listen to you off the air.

FLATOW: OK. Thanks.

RICK: Thank you so much.

FLATOW: Mm-hm. Any suggestion about how to save the smoke-filled painting?

Mr. WHALEN: Well, I would suggest two things. One, I would go to the American Institute of Conservations website and see who a good conservator is practicing in that area. But secondly, I think we would always say that the firsthand experience with the work of art is important. So the work we're trying to do, it tries to allow the visitor to have as personal and as close an experience with the work of art. We're trying not to put too many contraptions between one's eyes and that's in the surface of that object. So that's an important part of what we do.

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Mr. DRUZIK: Well, also, somewhat similar, but instead of putting the glasses on the viewer, one of the technologies that we have had developed at the University of Texas at El Paso, by Dr. Carl Dirk, involves putting filters on the light source. And actually, you can put filters over the eyes of the viewer. You can put the lights - the filters over the light source, and achieve somewhat similar results. And we, in fact, have got a light source that at the same level of illumination, is actually projecting only about 57 percent of the energy capable of doing damage to the surface of the work of art.

FLATOW: Yeah..

Mr. DRUZIK: It doesn't have hardly any effect on reduced-color rendition.

FLATOW: So what do we say to people - the biggest hint we can give them at home for their own artwork. Would light be the biggest enemy?

Mr. DRUZIK: Well, as the last call in mentioned, it's not so much humidity alone, but it's fluctuations in humidity which causes damage, because that induces both change, and high humidity causes microbiological growth that (unintelligible) above a certain level. So that's certainly an important factor.

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Mr. DRUZIK: In some climates, you have very little control over that indoors, than a private home. But there are very simple things that can be done in terms of lighting, and we always have to remember that since light causes damage, the intensity is a important thing to be concerned with and duration. Intensity times - time is dose and that renders the damage. So cut down intensity, cut down on duration. Things that can be scanned like historic photographs, virtually undetectable, can be put up, and the originals stored in dark - maybe better humidity-controlled environment.

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Mr. DRUZIK: So there are many things that can be done in homes and in historical houses, as well as museums.

FLATOW: Mm. Tim, do you deal with questions about works of art that are not meant to be preserved?

Mr. WHALEN: Well, I - we don't make that decision. I think what happens, is that either we operate in a larger community, and we're not the ones who value works of art, curators, the public decide what's valuable to them, and that's why conservators' jobs are very difficult, because things come to them, and they're handed to them and say please conserve this.

And we might not have the tools to do that, and science in fact, is a big help to us trying to understand what things are made out of these in fact. And happily, artists don't care what they use when they make works of art, and that's exactly right. But when they come to us, we have to figure out...

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Mr. WHALEN: Gosh, what is this, and how do we deal with it? So, that's the position I think our profession finds itself in.

FLATOW: Let me give both of you in a short time we have the Science Friday blank-check question that I give to many people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: And that is, if you had a blank check and you could spend it on any kind of research or restoration, things that you would like to know or tools that you need, how would you spend it?

Mr. WHALEN: Yikes. I think I would spend it to make sure that major sites around the world, places that all of us identify with, from the pyramids to the Machu Picchu, that those sites are cared for and protected in ways that, I'm afraid, there just aren't resources to do that, and it's not necessarily a scientific-research question.

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Mr. WHALEN: It's really political - a question of political will.

FLATOW: Mm-hm. Any other suggestion, Jim?

Mr. DRUZIK: Well, I would spend the money slightly differently. We would actually split...

FLATOW: Why am I not surprised?

Mr. DRUZIK: We would split the check and I would take my half, and focus it on both public outreach for education, and I will spend a quarter of it convincing other funding agencies and institutions, and certainly, I'll try to convince the National Science Foundation to pay more attention to conservation research. I'll try to leverage it that way.

FLATOW: Mm-hm. And can you buy more years of artwork- or do we have to face the fact that some of the artwork is going to be lost, as time just goes by?

Mr. DRUZIK: It's kind of inevitable. I mean, if you want a scary subject, you just consider how many of the Great Master paintings of the 15th and the 16th century were destroyed by war and famine, and, you know, insurrections and probably we lost 99 percent of all the great things, and we have what's left over. There's certain inevitability of loss. There is kind of thermodynamic inevitability that materials will decay. There's a - there's political and historical factors that affect things, or just neglect.

FLATOW: Mm-hm. Do you worry about the digitizing of art now, or digitizing of any kind of artworks, that we may lose them because in - they're going to be in a digital form?

Mr. WHALEN: No. I mean - I think in some respects, it will help protect and preserve many of them, and particularly materials in libraries that won't have to be handled as much. But I think one always has to remember that it is that original authentic object that we're trying to protect, and that's where our energies need to remain and reside in this field.

FLATOW: Mm. Do you have a particular piece of artwork you're working on to restore now?

MR. WHALEN: Gosh! Many, many of them.

FLATOW: I mean, there's not like one big famous thing that came into the (unintelligible)?

Mr. WHALEN: None. No. But we're working around the world on so many things. I hate to privilege one over the other.

FLATOW: OK, well, give me two or three.

Mr. WHALEN: Two or three, the Mogao Grottoes in China...

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Mr. WHALEN: Which are quite extraordinary, in - those of you going to the Olympics, please get out west in China and see them. They're remarkable. We're working on the preservation and conservation of painted tombs in the Valley of the Queens in Egypt, extraordinary things, and we are beginning a process of working with colleagues in Southeast Asia to preserve archaeological sites there, and we've just done a major workshop at the World Heritage Site of Vat Phou in Laos.

FLATOW: I imagine it must be hard to keep nature back from attacking, and naturally as it wants to grow things on it, things like that are exposed to the environment.

Mr. WHALEN: Well, I think that's exactly the case where we started out. You were talking about the windows open at Euphetsi (ph) and then think of the things that in fact are out in nature, whether it, again, is cave painting in China or a piece of public art on the streets of New York City.

FLATOW: Or development from moving in. I'm thinking of Angkor Wat and places like that, you know.

Mr. WHALEN: Perfect. So funny you mentioned that we're running a workshop in the fall at Siam Rip which is the urban gateway to Angkor, and it's one of the big issues. It's how do you stop urban development from flowing into these extraordinary places, and Cairo's a perfect example of that, the pyramids could soon be surrounded by an urban jungle which we're trying not to let that happen.

FLATOW: It turns into an urban park.

Mr. WHALEN and Mr. DRUZIK: Indeed.

FLATOW: What a thought. Thank you, gentlemen, for taking the time to be with us and good luck to you.

Mr. WHALEN: Thank you very much.

PESCA: You're welcome. Tim Whalen is director of the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles and then Jim Druzik is a senior scientist there, and I want to thank them for joining us today.

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