January 1997 Issue 22
Summer Placement at the Central Research Laboratory for Objects of Art and Science, Amsterdam
I was given a warm welcome at the Central Research Laboratory for Objects of Art and Science in Amsterdam by the Director, Dr. Agnes Gräfin Ballestrem. It proved to be an ideal place for a conservation science student to spend time.
My placement was supervised by Ms Karin Groen who is responsible for the analysis of paintings. Karin was very generous with her knowledge of pigments and painting techniques, as were René Huigen and Matthijs de Keijzer who also study pigments. Much of Karin's time is taken up by the Rembrandt Research Project and I was given first-hand advice on how to spot the real thing! Another aspect of the work is to answer queries about paintings from curators and conservators. The wide range of scientific skills at the Central Laboratories ensures many avenues can be explored to solve these problems.
I was greatly impressed by the extensive facilities there and was able to spend time with scientists who specialise in analytical techniques such as: X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF), High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC), Thin Layer Chromatography (TLC) and Fourier Transform Infra-Red (FTIR). The database of art technological sources (TINCL) and its aims were explained to me by Ap Stijnman. This unique resource is based at the Central Laboratory and to date has over three thousand entries of manuscripts, recipes, accounts and many other examples of historical literature. When I asked why the filing cabinets containing copies of these ancient manuscripts were labelled 'Acts of the Gods' the reply came - ' Well they are!'. The ability of the Dutch to master foreign languages was frequently demonstrated to me and this skill is utilised here, as translations of many of the treatises are available for even the unilingual English to understand.
In the Netherlands there is a strong drive to develop new analytical methods for use in conservation. The MOLART project, which aims to understand art at a molecular level, uses the skills of scientists, conservation scientists, conservators and art historians to collaborate to get a valid interpretation of results. One part of the project is to develop SLIM - Spatially resolved Laser induced Ion Mass spectrometry. This will be capable of extracting vast amounts of data from cross-sections, leading to a more complete knowledge of the materials present which may influence conservation treatments.
Whilst in the Netherlands I took the opportunity to visit many conservation studios including those at the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh museum, the Frans Hals museum, the Mauritshaus and the training school at Maastricht. Everybody was very friendly and willing to discuss their work which made these visits extrememly enjoyable. I also visited 'De Kat' windmill, built in 1782, and used daily for the preparation of pigments. Piet, the miller, showed me the wide selection of traditional pigments and artists' materials on sale there. The Kröller Muller museum and sculpture park was another highlight. There is a large supply of white bikes available for visitors to cycle around the grounds - a thoroughly Dutch experience!
I feel privileged to have had a 'behind the scenes' look at the Central Laboratory. It was interesting for me to see how the work is organised as this differs from Conservation Research at the V&A, where work is focussed directly on the museum's own collection. I learnt a great deal from my placement but one recurring thought was how important and productive the arrangement at the V&A is. Having scientific staff in the same building as conservators, curators and the collections makes collaboration and integration between disciplines so much easier to achieve.