Using Technology to Protect Artwork

Artworks serve many purposes, including recording the past, demonstrating man’s creativity, and educating future generations. Museums, by their definition, undertake the responsibility to protect their collections and maintain these valuable functions. As new technologies emerge, museums have better tools to show undamaged art to the general public, and to make sure that these pieces will be preserved for years to come. 

Here are two exciting technologies that museums are using to better preserve and protect art.

1. Artificial Nose Can Sniff Out Pollutants

A longstanding problem in the field of art conservation is that it’s hard to measure and predict the accumulated damage taken by a piece of art. Even when conservators seal artworks in display cases to protect them from air pollutants, artworks sometimes can still absorb reactive compounds, which will accrue in the cases and lead to serious damage. Though conservators hide sorbent materials inside the cases to help soak up such pollutants, it’s hard to know when to replace the sorbents. This can cause art such as prints and canvases to change color or even decompose! 

A museum conservator at work

A museum conservator at work

A newly developed supersensitive artificial nose might be able to solve this problem. When 90 years’ worth of original drawings and sketches from Walt Disney Animation Studios traveled internationally for the first time this summer, they were accompanied by a newfangled protective device: a “nose” combining the technology of electricity and light, designed to sniff out pollutants in the air before they could irreversibly damage the artwork. Shown in the exhibit Drawn from Life: The Art of Disney Animation Studios, the drawings were the first to benefit from this new development in conservation technology, which researchers say has the potential to lengthen the lifespans of countless artworks.

This nose was developed by Kenneth Suslick, a researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who had previously developed a pollutant-sniffing nose used for biomedical purposes. Unlike human body, artworks are not capable of healing and art works have longer lifespan compared, which means artworks need a more sensible protection. Considering this fact, Suslick developed a highly sensible sensor that they say is several hundred times more receptive than the currently used devices for cultural heritage research.

2. 3D Database preserve the art in Syria

As valuable culture heritage sites are faced with increasing threats from the warfare and violence, a team of digital surveyors is working to create the world’s largest 3D database of archaeological sites in Syria, focusing on those at risk of destruction. 

This team from French 3D digitization agency Iconem, launched Syrian Heritage, a project organized with the Syrian Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums to preserve a patrimony increasingly threatened by warfare and violence. 

The Iconem team, comprised of architects, engineers, and graphic designers, started working with Syrian Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums in 2014. They trained local archaeologists on their field survey techniques to help them collect visuals for the database. The typical information-gathering process involves using a drone to conduct relatively fast photographic surveys of an area, and then then using photogrammetry to process and stitch together the stream of photographs to construct 3D versions.

The finished 3D version offers a clear view of the endangered site. Three-dimensional models published on SketchFab also allow global visitors to interact with select sections of each site by zooming in to examine incredibly precise details.

Technology is a powerful tool and it plays an increasingly important role in art protection. Museum need to be open to the new emerging technologies and take use of these technologies to better protect their artworks.


Images licensed under creative commons. By Евгений Со - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0