Bringing Science to Art

A recent article combining art, archaeology, and technology caught my eye at lunch the other day, and it reminds us of the old saying, “If the mountain will not go to Mohammed, let Mohammed come to the mountain.”  The Molab, a mobile laboratory for undertaking scientific research into artifacts and art, was constructed by researchers at the University of Perugia in Italy.  It has been touring museums and collections for the past several years, to show what can be done by bringing scientific technology to a site, rather than trying to take an object from a site and bring it to a lab.

While we might not think about it, there are many situations in which detailed scientific examination of something such as a painting, sculpture, or other object is not possible, without causing some degree of damage, or even risking the destruction of the object itself.  For example, a few months ago I wrote about the possibility of rediscovering Leonardo Da Vinci’s lost fresco of the Battle of Anghiari in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.  If researchers are going to uncover the fresco, then the wall which currently stands in front of it will have to be removed, damaging or destroying a later fresco by Giorgio Vasari.

In some cases, it is simply impractical or impossible to move the object from where it is, because of size, or a fragile state of preservation.  Yet even if the desired subject of study is portable however, that does not mean that it should be moved if that can be avoided.  As Signore Russano points out in his article, the insurance costs involved with transporting something like a Da Vinci from a museum in one city to a laboratory in another – let alone from one country to another – would be astronomical.

In addition, even though many museums have conservation departments, not all have the budget or staff expertise to maintain their own hi-tech equipment such as digital microscopes or spectroscopes.  While cleaning and restoration may take place on site, deeper scientific analysis may be all but impossible in many instances without a serious outlay of funds.  The Molab eliminates the need for gigantic insurance premiums or anti-anxiety medication on the part of curators shipping away their treasures to some far-off place, by bringing the science to the source.

While the idea of creating a laboratory on-site is nothing new, such as in the case of the restoration, preservation, and study of major works such as Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel or Da Vinci’s Last Supper in Milan, this mobile concept strikes me as having something of a more egalitarian quality.  It allows even a smaller, idiosyncratic collection, for example, to engage in the kind of analysis previously only available to museums with deep pockets or major donors.  No doubt study in the areas of art history and archaeology in particular, but also in a range of fields from anthropology to zoology, will benefit from greater access to these types of tools, the more the concept of Molab becomes accepted in the museum community.


Molab researchers study “The Last Judgement” by Memling (c. 1467-1471)
at the National Museum in Gdańsk, Poland

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