The fine line between art and science



Chiara Ceci


For thousands of years, science and art have shared an intertwined history and today, in museums all over the world, conservation scientists work closely with curators to authenticate, preserve, and restore artefacts. Many museums have state-of-the-art laboratories where they carry out innovative research; developing analytical techniques, preventive conservation, and treatment methodologies. Techniques used in this field are typically non-invasive and include the use of X-rays, spectroscopy and radiocarbon dating analysis. One of the most frequently used techniques is Raman spectroscopy, a rapid and non-invasive method to determine the chemical composition of an object.

Conservation scientists also develop and test new materials to preserve artworks. One great example of how science has supported an art conservation project is the story of the Mary Rose, the flagship of Henry VIII’s navy. This wooden Tudor warship was built in 1510 and was sunk by the French 35 years later. The remains of the ship, and its 19,000 on-board artefacts were discovered, over 400 years later in 1971, and raised from the seabed in 1982. It took decades of conservation work to preserve this incredible piece of history.

Underwater, most of the hull was covered in silt, which had effectively sealed the ship and the artefacts on-board, creating anaerobic conditions that prevented their decay. When the ship was raised from the sea it was not possible to completely seal it, thus, the wood had to be sprayed regularly with chilled fresh water to stop it from drying out and consequently, shrinking and cracking. At the same time, the remains started to oxidise due to air exposure and were also attacked by bacteria and fungi. Preserving the Mary Rose was a great challenge, and thanks to highly advanced scientific knowledge, this incredible treasure can now be admired at the Mary Rose Museum, at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.

In 1994, scientists succeeded in finding a way to dry out the ship without causing any shrinkage - using polyethylene glycol (PEG), a new polymer for preserving waterlogged archaeological wood. This polymer penetrates into cell wall layers, and binds to any remaining cellulose present in the wood via hydrogen bonds, and replaces water in the wood, thus preventing shrinkage of the material.

Another threat was the production of sulphuric acid, generated by the oxidation of sulphur, present in the wood, by atmospheric oxygen. To address this problem, the hull was treated with strontium carbonate nanoparticles, which react with sulphur to form stable strontium sulfates. The restoration of the Mary Rose has been one of the most complex programmes of this type and illustrates how modern scientific techniques have revolutionised the field of art conservation.


Chiara Ceci naturalista, appassionata di evoluzione (ha scritto una biografia della moglie di Charles Darwin, Emma Wedgwood Darwin) e si occupa di comunicazione della scienza. Lavora nel Regno Unito, nell’ufficio stampa della Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.