Sea snails, cow urine, mummy flesh and digital preservation
November 4, 2017 2:16 AM Subscribe
Alongside a few tubes of Mummy Brown are other pigments whose origin stories are practically legend. Tyrian purple, an ancient Phoenician dye that requires 10,000 mollusks to produce a single gram of pigment, is said to have been discovered by Hercules’s dog as he snuffled along the beach. Indian yellow, purportedly made from the urine of cows fed only on mango leaves, was banned by the British government in the early 20th century on the grounds that its production constituted animal cruelty. Ultramarine, a vivid blue made from lapis lazuli mined in Afghanistan, was once more precious than gold.
Narayan Khandekar takes us inside the Harvard art laboratory housing the rarest color pigments in the world, and he shares stories about the historic, roughly 2,500-piece Forbes Pigment Collection. Although public access is restricted, the row of floor-to-ceiling cabinets on the museum’s fourth floor—stocked with a literal rainbow of powders in glass bottles of all shapes and sizes—are clearly visible through a glass-walled atrium.
Khandekar heads the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies at Harvard, a role he’s held since 2015. Together with a team of 20-odd scientists and conservators, he oversees the study and preservation of roughly 250,000 artworks and objects—from Ancient Greek coins to Egyptian amulets to Constantin Brancusi sculptures—owned by the university’s museums.
In 1964 a series of five painted canvases were installed on the top floor of a Cambridge building belonging to Harvard. The works in question were cohesive rectangular forms saturated in dark colors by the artist Mark Rothko, commissioned especially for the university
Almost as captivating as the Rothko Murals, apparently, were the views from the adjacent windows out onto the city—thus the curtains were often left open and the light allowed to stream freely into the penthouse dining room.
It doesn’t take a scientist to guess the level of deterioration to these works over several years of exposure to bright light. Even to an unobservant eye, it was a radical shift from their original state. But it does, however, take a conservation scientist—a whole team of them, in fact—to put it right. At the Harvard Art Museums in Cambridge, Massachusetts, this has become known as one of their spectacular restoration projects. Using noninvasive light technology, a digital projection seemingly restores the vibrancy of the murals, without leaving a single mark.
Mark Rothko's Harvard Murals cannot be restored by conventional means. The team set upon a method whereby the right color and intensity of light can be shone in exactly the right location across two million pixels for each of the five murals to restore their appearance without physically intervening with the painting.