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The Science of Conserving Our Cultural Heritage
The Science of Conserving Our Cultural Heritage


Acclaimed artist Heather Becker once noted: “Conservation is a meeting of art and science.” The conservation she referred to was that of our cultural heritage, what the US State Department’s Cultural Heritage Center calls: “The ancient and historic monuments, objects and archaeological sites of the world” that enrich and inform society, and help us connect to our “cultural origins.”

At Portland State University, Dr. Tami Lasseter Clare and her team in the Regional Laboratory for the Science of Cultural Heritage Conservation (the Lasseter Clare Lab) apply their skills as chemists to provide aid to those conserving objects of cultural value. In a process called characterization, Clare’s team also makes determinations about the chemical composition, shape, structure, surface area and other aspects of culturally significant materials like pigments in ink from an ancient manuscript or the chemical fingerprints in soil samples collected from National Historic Sites like southwest Washington State’s Ft. Vancouver. 

Research projects funded by the National Science Foundation currently underway in the Lasseter Clare Lab have led to innovations in electrochemical monitoring methods that conservation scientists can  use to assess the coatings protecting sculptures, particularly metallic sculptures on display outdoors where elements in the environment can cause serious damage to works of art. This past June, Clare, aided by the office of Innovation & Intellectual Property at PSU, filed a provisional patent application for a conductive hydrogel for use in electrochemical impedance spectroscopy (EIS), a technique that provides high information content relating to the characterization of materials, that was developed in the Lasseter Clare Lab.

“This is a part of what we do in the lab,” Clare said. “It’s one of the jobs of a conservation scientist: to identify new diagnostic tools that can be used to better conserve works of art. In this case, that tool is a hydrogel we can use as a part of the process of making determinations about the state of the coatings protecting sculptures.”

Clare’s innovations may open this technique up to conservation scientists everywhere. With the current methods, EIS is an excellent tool to use in a laboratory on flat or horizontal surfaces. These methods, however, cannot be applied to objects with curved and contoured surfaces like that of the Eagle in Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park where Clare and her team are participating in a three year conservation project in collaboration with the Seattle Art Museum. The conductive hydrogels developed by Clare and her team make it possible to employ EIS outside of the lab, allowing conservation scientists to use the method to characterize coatings on the irregular surfaces of art objects.

The collaboration between the Seattle Art Museum and the Lasseter Clare Lab illustrates just how conservation scientists, working alongside of conservators—the women and men who do the work of conserving a piece once the conservation scientists have identified problems and formulated solutions—bring art and science together to preserve a work of art.

Conservation is not restoration. Cultural artifacts generally undergo restoration to make them appear as they had in their original state. Conservation on the other hand, is the process of stabilizing work as it currently is. To prevent further damage and preserve a sense of history and age.

                                                                                         —Dr. Tami Lasseter Clare

Developing innovative diagnostic tools to help prevent damage to works of art is only one of the projects in the Lasseter Clare Lab’s repertoire. In collaboration with Dr. Stephen Delamarter at George Fox University, the Lasseter Clare Lab is conducting materials analysis of ancient Ethiopian manuscripts. In a project in partnership with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the lab is developing the next generation of coatings to protect culturally significant monuments, sculptures, and buildings made of copper or iron alloys against corrosion and degradation. And at Ft. Vancouver, the lab is helping archeologists map the historical site by analyzing the chemical composition of the soil in order to better determine what types of buildings were located at various sites.

Not only is the Lasseter Clare Lab a hub of research and innovation on the PSU campus, the lab is also the regional hub for chemists interested in pursuing careers in conservation science. In the Lasseter Clare Lab, students can get hands-on research experience developing new diagnostics for artwork, creating novel coatings for works of art, analyzing, characterizing and studying real works of cultural heritage, while at the same time receiving the broad training of a graduate program in chemistry. North of Los Angeles, home of the Getty Institute and west of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Lasseter Clare Lab is the only lab of its kind at a public institution dedicated to education.

Protecting our cultural heritage, the objects, art work, buildings and monuments that reach across time and space and tell us about who we are, where we came from, and where we’re going is a noble endeavor. The reasons for doing so are too numerous to list. Conservation scientists like Dr. Clare play a key role in ensuring that objects of cultural significance will be around for generations, if not centuries to come. But these scientists do more than just devise methods for protecting these objects, they add to our knowledge base by sifting through chemical clues to answer questions about when and how objects were made, which helps us understand why they were made. When we understand that, we learn a little more about cultures that came before us, and that, in turn, helps us understand more about who we are.

For more information about Dr. Clare, the Lasseter Clare Lab and projects the lab is involved in, watch the video below and visit the lab’s website at:

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Authored by Shaun McGillis
Posted July 8, 2013