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How science protect our cultural heritage?

Updated: Mar 10, 2021

Interview with Lavinia de Ferri

After a long and cold winter in Tromsø, Joana decided to travel and visit the Urnes Stave Church in Luster. Once she arrived at Bergen by plane, Joana embarked on Bergen-train and travelled up to Myrdal, taking one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world, the “Flåm Railway”. The bus from Flåm to Sogndal passed through the Laerdal tunnel, the longest tunnel in the world (24.5 km) and Joana could calm down from the drunkenness of these magic views. After 10 minutes of travelling through the tunnel, she woke up and drew the map of her next trip…

Does it sound familiar to you? Like Joana, many people dream and travel around the world to visit magic and unknown places, to discover “who we are” and “where we come from”.

Cultural heritage is key for human identification as it relies on the memory of the communities and individuals. Cultural assets are reflections of socio-political changes over the years. For instance, the decoration on the outside of the Urnes Stave Church, including wood carvings and sculpted décor, is visual evidence of the Viking culture transformation and adoption of Christianity (Link).

Dr. Lavinia de Ferri diagnosing artwork samples!

Exploring old cultural assets with scientific techniques gives important historical data and helps to prevent current and future deteriorations. But preserving cultural assets is complicated as the selection of replacing materials must be compatible with the existing appearance and with similar chemical and physical properties.

To learn some interesting facts about the protection of cultural heritage materials, we interviewed Lavinia de Ferri, an associate professor at the University of Oslo (UiO) at the Department of Collection Management-Museum of Cultural History. Lavinia has a great scientific interest in the characterization and protection of cultural heritage materials and she is participating in the EU-project IPERION-HS that aims to establish a permanent European research infrastructure for heritage science.

1. As an introduction to this topic, can you tell us, Lavinia, how in general the techniques carried out in the laboratory can be used for characterization and protection of cultural heritage materials?

In general, I can say that the scientific analysis of artworks are becoming more and more important because they give the possibility to obtain precise answers to a lot of questions we receive from art historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, architects, conservators, site or collection managers, etc…The number and type of analysis we can perform on an object is extremely wide, and increase every day.

Scientific analysis can reveal the technique of an artist, or the dating of an object. In some cases, we can study the provenience of objects or the technology used to produce them; other times scientists are interested in studying the diet or the health condition of historical populations.

Another wide field for scientific analysis is determining the artworks’ state of conservation by looking at how materials transformed over time. It is possible to observe how the combined action of rain, temperature variations, pollution, wind, light, etc… induces the cracks, detachments, colour changes, chemical alterations, or growth of micro-organisms. Characterizing these “alteration products'' (as we call them), we can determine the cause of their formation and advise on how to intervene. Obviously, in case of an actual intervention, we must work together with conservators and collection/site managers. These are not decisions we can take on our own but by a team of professionals with different backgrounds.

2. Which chemical and physical properties are taken into account while replacing or repairing cultural heritage materials?

When planning an intervention, we should always consider the compatibility of new elements or materials with the original ones. The first step is always to study the original material, to determine its exact nature. If we talk about wood, for example, we must determine the species; if we talk about stones, we must individuate the typology and possibly the provenance. This is because if a replacement is necessary, the properties of the new element must be very similar to those of the original parts that will surround it. Similar materials are expected to behave in similar ways, for example toward atmospheric agents. For example, new stone materials are taken (when possible) from the same quarry used to get the original pieces of a structure.

Using an analogy with medicine, we try to both avoid unnecessary interventions and use the medicine that involves the minimum collateral effects.

3. What techniques do you use to avoid or minimize the collateral effects when extraction of a sample is necessary?

We always start with a visual examination, then we proceed with all the non-invasive analysis that can give us the answers we are looking for without taking samples from the object we are studying and possibly even without touching it. Taking samples is something we do if it is strictly necessary, and when we do, we try to reduce their number as much as possible. Also, the samples must be “representative” of our object, so choosing where to take them is crucial, because sampling is something we cannot do twice and from the few we are authorized to take we must be able to get all the answers.

How to do it depends a lot on the material and on its conservation condition: we can use scalpels, spatulas or tweezers; for small objects or in particular contexts (big conservation laboratories), we can work under the microscope. When working on structures, sometimes we use drills, core drills or even small hammers.

Personally, sampling is always the scariest part of the job because of the extra attention required and the risk is to seriously damage or destroy a unique work of art.

4. It is believed that suitable and sensitive energy design in historic buildings can result in significant carbon reduction. How can the historic significance of cultural artefacts, especially of windows, can be conserved considering this statement?

The refurbishment of historical buildings is a very debated topic. Many things must be considered, such as national regulations about interventions on historical buildings and monumental sites, and sometimes the most effective solution is not applicable because it is in contrast with philological, artistic, aesthetic or historical reasons. We can agree or not on these issues but we must always remember that a historical building is not just a building, is a work of art in itself, often conceived with more than merely practical motivations. All of this must be considered when planning a refurbishment intervention, that is aimed to give a new life to a structure changing its intended use. Nowadays an increasing number of companies are specializing in these interventions, especially in Europe where historical buildings represent more than one-quarter of the existing building stock.

5. What are the likely challenges you think the cultural heritage workers around the world face nowadays?

A lot depends on local political and cultural environments. In many places, one of the biggest problems is the cooperation between professionals with different backgrounds, stemming from deep cultural roots. Fortunately, new generations are overcoming more and more these cultural barriers; in many countries professionals trained in the human sciences are encouraged to take basic courses about the application of science to the investigation of art, and these courses are now part of the humanities academic paths.

Talking more strictly about science, the development of new materials clearly represents a continuous challenge. As I said, materials for conservation represent a huge problem due to the complexity of the issues. Currently, a growing field is the application of green chemistry to cultural heritage.

The same applies to analytical techniques and methods: the research is pushing toward the development of smaller and lighter portable instruments with improved performances to increase the quality and also the typology of data we can obtain working in situ, or more generally in a non-invasive and non-destructive way. But we are also working on the development of new analytical methods allowing us to obtain the same information with the same accuracy on smaller and smaller samples: nowadays, in most cases, we can work on amounts of materials in the order of a few micrograms.

6. Is there any special issue in your field that you would like to investigate in the future?

There are few materials on which I never worked, so that would be an interesting challenge, metals for example. In general, I have a passion for glass: I discovered the beauty of glass during my Ph.D., but later I rarely had the opportunity to work on that, so I’d love to. But it is hard to say what I’m mostly curious about: every time I work on a new artwork I have to question myself, and I realize how much more there is to know and this is extremely stimulating for me.

And to finish this interesting interview, we would like to know which is your favourite cultural building in Norway or outside Norway?

I must admit that I did not travel that much in Norway so I still have to visit a lot of places. Up to now, probably my favorites are the stave churches of Heddal and Gol (now re-built at the Norsk Folkemuseum). Outside Norway is actually very hard to say: some places are not only beautiful but are also part of my personal life, for example, the Torrechiara castle close to Parma, my hometown; others are simply of such disarming beauty and grandeur that they are astonishing: the Colosseum, for example, or the mosaics of Piazza Armerina in Sicily.

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