The lasers are back on!

June 13, 2024

Laser-cleaning activities at the V&A have resumed in the last few months, and I am the laser-cleaning fellow in the newly refurbished laboratory of the Science Section, Conservation department.

Cleaning museum objects is a significant task in the life of conservators. In many cases, the use of solvents or abrasives is problematic and time consuming. For the preservation of valuable objects, a non-contact and precise cleaning method, such as laser cleaning, can have considerable benefits. Laser cleaning has been around since the 1970s, and has proven itself effective for the treatment of various objects or monuments. There are many successful examples: the cleaning of plaster statuary, historical facades and reliefs, various Renaissance masterpieces, historical and archaeological metals, or wall paintings, to cite a few.

I have full access to the three state-of-the-art laser cleaning machines of the V&A: two Nd:YAG lasers (Neodymium Yttrium Aluminium Garnet) and one Er:YAG laser (Erbium Yttrium Aluminium Garnet). The two types of lasers operate in a slightly different way, emitting light across various parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, resulting in distinct interactions with materials. Because each material absorbs laser light differently, having this set of instruments to complement each other means we can approach a broader range of objects and materials.

Two large laser machines
The laser cleaning machines of the V&A. Left to right: Fotona Fidelis Er:YAG, Lynton Compact Phoenix Nd:YAG, and Lynton Phoenix Nd:YAG

My role this year is to assess the effects of the Er:YAG laser on a range of heritage materials found in the collection of the museum, and identify situations where lasers can present a safe and effective cleaning method. I will be working in close collaboration with the scientists and conservators and will also be providing training with the aim of implementing laser cleaning in routine treatments.

A scientist wearing goggles using a laser to clean a colourful shoe
Practising on a plastic Mondrian-style shoe with the Er:YAG laser

My first task will be looking at the application of lasers on plastic objects, to determine what range of parameters works best, and to study the removal of various contaminants such as dirt, sticky residues, or leached additives.

Stay posted for updates on my activities!

The fellowship is made possible thanks to generous funding and donation of the Er:YAG laser by Ed and Anne Teppo.

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