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Conserving our art heritage

Problem Solved: university research answering today's challenges

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Researchers at Nottingham Trent University are developing a new generation of technology that will become a tool for use by galleries and
art conservators around the world.

Projects funded by the AHRC, the EPSRC and the Leverhulme Trust will result in a vital new instrument that will enable smarter conservation of some of our most priceless and important works of art.

All of this can help art conservators and curators to better understand the historical significance and what is required to preserve priceless artefacts.

Since 2004, Dr Haida Liang from the University’s School of Science and Technology has led research into the application of Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT) which provides a badly needed non¬invasive method for the examination of paintings. Originally developed as a medical imaging tool, OCT uses infrared light to penetrate biological tissue which scatters the light back. This scattered light is then detected by the device, allowing it to measure the distance it has travelled and produce a three¬dimensional image of the inner structures of the tissue.

Since realising the potential for OCT to be applied in the examination of works of art, Dr Liang and her team have spent the past six years pioneering various applications for work in art history, archaeology and art conservation.

In the case of paintings, the depth and distribution of paint and varnish layers, and even artist’s preparatory drawings, can be made visible. All of this can help art conservators and curators to better understand the historical significance and what is required to preserve priceless artefacts. The team at Nottingham Trent University now hope that a variety of improvements can be made to the effectiveness of current OCT systems, all of which will be of enormous benefit to its users. Researchers are developing a system that uses a broader band and longer wavelength of light to improve the resolution and depth of penetration achievable.

These improvements will allow OCT users to collect a level of detailed information which is currently only possible by physically removing samples from artefacts and examining them with a microscope. This work will also help to establish a reputation for OCT as a tool for non-invasive imaging in the heritage field, highlighting the benefits it has as an early warning tool for detecting deterioration and problems for conservation.

These research projects are being carried out in partnership with the National Gallery, English Heritage and the British Museum, which have allowed the researchers to apply their techniques to the examination of paintings, enamels, glass and ceramics. Teams from English Heritage and the National Gallery have been able to test the instrument, and work with the Nottingham Trent researchers to continually improve its effectiveness. Once fully developed, it will form a critical part of conservator’s tools ensuring that art is conserved and protected for future generations without suffering any damage in the process.