Behind the Scenes, Conservation, Education, Getty Conservation Institute

Boot Camp for Conservators Explores X-Ray Fluorescence Spectrometry

Conservators flex their analytical muscles as they learn to use this scientific tool to study and understand art and cultural heritage collections

I recently returned from an intensive four-day boot camp in New Haven co-organized with the Yale Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage. But don’t picture me doing crunches and push-ups. This was boot camp for conservators, and our focus was X-ray fluorescence spectrometry—XRF for short. This analytical technique provides information about material composition without physically removing a sample from the object, always a plus when dealing with treasured works of art.

Using XRF to analyze Pluto Abducting Proserpine / Francois Girardon

Using an open-architecture XRF unit to analyze the metal composition of a bronze sculpture by François Girardon, Pluto Abducting Proserpine (1693–1710), in the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum

XRF is widely used in industry and manufacturing, from quality control assessment to identifying different types of scrap metals. It made its first appearance in the museum world in the hands of a conservation scientist, who was using a handheld XRF unit, at the Museum of Modern Art in 2000. In recent years, as handheld XRF instruments became more affordable and easy to use, many museums and cultural institutions have acquired these portable units. Conservation scientists have been meeting periodically to discuss ways to optimize and standardize the use of this important technique.

XRF analysis being performed on Cardinal d'Amboise / Nicephore Niepce

Smaller handheld XRF units can be set up on a tripod for extra stability. Here XRF analysis is performed on a plate of Cardinal d’Amboise by photographer Nicéphore Niépce, from the Royal Photographic Society collection at the National Media Museum, Bradford, UK

Previously the exclusive domain of conservation scientists, XRF has increasingly become an important tool for conservators. Handheld units can be used like a point-and-shoot camera, with the resulting scientific data (elemental spectra that suggest what the material is) obtained in a short amount of time. However, works of art are frequently complex or are composed of composite structures, and special consideration must be given to the interpretation of the XRF results. For this reason, the Getty Conservation Institute, in collaboration with the Yale Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, organized a focused workshop on the fundamentals of XRF and data interpretation for conservators.

Aniko Bezur works with conservators at the Yale Center of Conservation and Preservation

Aniko Bezur (far right), director of scientific research at the Yale Center of Conservation and Preservation, working with Boot Camp participants.

In November we held the first XRF Boot Camp for conservators who work at institutions without a conservation scientist on staff or with only limited access to one. We had participants from across the globe, including Singapore, Qatar, Japan, Norway, and Ireland, as well as the United States.

XRF analysis of The Title Makers / Alfred Jensen

Boot Camp participants use XRF to analyze the material composition of panels from The Title Makers, an oil painting series by Alfred Jensen in the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery. Foreground: To Aim and Excel; background: Lost, Entanglement and Survival, both 1959, 77 x 42 in.

After four days of lectures, lab practicals and group projects using objects from the Yale University Art Gallery and the Yale Peabody Museum, the participants came away with a well-grounded understanding of how XRF works. One of the important learning experiences was following the scientific process, including setting up and preparing for analysis of a specific type of object, defining the questions, and determining if other complementary analytical techniques may be needed to answer those questions. For example, conservators are often asked if there is lead or arsenic in some ethnographic materials. XRF can tell you whether they are present, but not what the toxicity levels may be. You would need complementary analysis to answer these types of questions.

Conservators examine scientific data collected at the GCI-Yale XRF Boot Camp

Examining data collected on day 3 of the XRF Boot Camp.

By the end of XRF Boot Camp it was very rewarding to see the transformation of the participants as they developed a stronger understanding of the data—moving from “What does this mean?” to “I know what it is telling me.” We were inspired by the learning that took place over those four days and are exploring the possibility of repeating the XRF Boot Camp for Conservators in the future.

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One Comment

  1. tom heller
    Posted March 7, 2014 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    I have a 19th C oil painting on canvas that has another painting underneath and am looking for a facility to x-ray my painting. After months of research into this painting, I believe it is by an important artist. My home is in the SanFrancisco area and I plan to visit your museum in the spring. Would you be interested in x-raying my painting or can you recommend another facility?

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      A Chat with Photographer Tomoko Sawada

      A conversation about Japanese matchmaking traditions, self-portraiture, clothes, and identity.

      When did you start photographing yourself?
      I began making self-portraits when I was 19. It was an assignment for a photography class. I can’t even explain in Japanese why I liked them so much. It was instinctual. It’s as if I knew that this was going to be my style, that this is what I wanted to do. And I’m still doing it because I love the self-portrait, but I don’t know why. 

      What themes are you exploring in your work?
      I’m interested in the relationship between inside and outside. If you wear a sexy dress or if you wear kids clothes or casual clothes, people treat you differently. Even though you are you no matter what you wear. It’s that relationship that makes me think. 

      My new work is from when I was living in New York. When I was in New York, people didn’t think I was Japanese. Sometimes they thought I was Korean or Chines or Mongolian. Even Singaporean. It was funny, when I would go to the Japanese market, they would speak to me in English. When I went to the Korean market, they would speak to me in English again. I don’t seem to look Japanese outside of Japan. I was surprised because I think I look totally Japanese. It’s funny that people’s points of view are totally different.

      Could you talk a little about OMIAI, the series that represents a traditional Japanese matchmaking technique.
      OMIAI is a tradition that is somehow still working today. Usually, there is a matchmaker and photographs are exchanged before meeting. If both sides are interested, they can meet for lunch or dinner accompanied by their parents and steps for marriage proceed from there. In the old days, some people chose their marriage partner just through photographs, without even meeting each other. 

      When OMIAI was exhibited in Japan I saw people making various comments in from of the work. People would say things like, “she looks like a good cook; surely she would prepare delicious meals every day,” or “ this girl could be a perfect bride for my son,” or “I can tell she would not be a good housewife,” or “she’s such a graceful girl; she must be the daughter of a decent family.” Comments like that. 

      What was the process of making that work?
      I gained 10 pounds before I started taking the pictures, and in six months I lost forty pounds, because I wanted to look different in each photo. I wanted to change the way my legs looked. 

      Every weekend I went to the hair salon and put on a kimono. Then I went to the photo studio on the street in Japan. I would take a picture and then change my clothes to western dress. Then I would go to the studio again the next weekend. 

      Did you tell the photographer how you wanted it done?
      I told him I was an artist and wanted to make photographs with him. I told him to think that each weekend new girls would show up to make the OMIAI. I didn’t want him to think of me as the same girl who came every weekend. He understood the concept. 

      We had fun. While he was taking pictures, his wife would tell me how to lose weight. She gave me many tips.

      Tomoko Sawada’s work is on view at the Getty until February 21, 2016 in “The Younger Generation: Contemporary Japanese Photography”


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