Preserving a work by starving it of air
Anoxic storage can slow deterioration
By Emily Sharpe. Conservation, Issue 227, September 2011
Published online: 14 September 2011
A cutting-edge area of research, and one that has conservators and museum professionals talking, is anoxic or oxygen-free storage and display. Oxidation has long been associated with the deterioration of light-sensitive materials, so the idea is that the degradation process can be slowed down by eliminating or greatly reducing oxygen levels.
In exploring the possible benefits of anoxic environments on highly light sensitive colourants, scientists at the Tate are using microfaders—devices that measure the rate of colour change—to compare the light-sensitivity of materials in air and in oxygen-free environments. Microfading involves shining a beam of light smaller than a full-stop on an object’s surface and collecting data on the rate of the induced colour change in real time.
Scientists from institutions including the Tate, the Getty and the Centre de Recherche sur la Conservation des Collections (CRCC) in Paris gathered at London’s Tate Modern this week (12-13 September) for a symposium on the potential impact of microfading and anoxia on collection care.
The symposium marks the culmination of the Tate’s five-year research project to develop for the commercial market a low-oxygen enclosure for works on paper. According to Pip Laurenson, the head of collection care research at the Tate, the institution’s research on microfading and anoxic environments has produced some surprising results. For example, a group of Francis Bacon ballpoint-pen drawings and 20th-century pastels by Vuillard from the Tate’s collection, while still light-sensitive, are more durable than originally thought.
“It seems that, despite real questions about the relationship between real-time fade rates and microfading, we are on the cusp of a sea change in the way we think about lighting and light-sensitivity of works of art, and this could have a profound impact on how we manage collections,” said Laurenson.
Other institutions are also exploring anoxic environments, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, which used oxygen-free frames for its six-day display in January of autochromes by Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen. Bertrand Lavédrine, the director of the CRCC, recently told The Art Newspaper that he would like to develop low-cost anoxic frames for collectors.
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