Today's Guest Bloggers are Gregory Dale Smith, Ph.D., the IMA's Otto N. Frenzel III Senior Conservation Scientist, and Michael Columbia, Ph.D., Sabbatical Leave Research Fellow - IPFW
It is an uncomfortable truth that in showing you an artwork in a museum, we are potentially destroying it. As a conservation professional, it feels wrong to admit that, but it is true. Every photon, or packet of radiant energy, that strikes the surface of an art object has the potential to do damage, and we most often see that as a negative change in the artwork’s aesthetics: darkening, fading, yellowing, chalking, crosslinking, etc. It’s an unstoppable phenomenon, but one that proceeds at a variety of rates. Certainly color change is one of the most notable alterations that light can cause in an artwork, and so we must dole out the expected lifetime of an object using an informed and rational approach. Conservators and collections managers go to great pains to protect artwork by limiting its exposure to light. This can take the form of reducing light intensity, restricting its spectral output, or limiting the duration of an exhibition. These stewards of the collection get additional insight and data from scientists who study the fading behavior of artists’ materials.
For the past several months the IMA has been conducting a condition survey of its photograph collection, over 800 objects that span the history of the medium. This program is sponsored by a generous grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), a wing of the federal government that supports museum and conservation activities. In addition to the inventory and conservation assessment of each artwork, the grant has also funded a study of the lightfastness of the contemporary color photographs in the collection using a technique called microfade testing (MFT), or microfadeometry. The goal of the study is to determine the susceptibility to color change for the highest priority color photographs in the collection and to determine patterns of lightfastness among the many photographic processes. This data in turn informs our exhibition, loan, and lighting guidelines for the collection.
Figure 1. Watercolor paint outs after artificial light aging.