Application of advanced analytical methods for damage assessment of cultural artefacts in museums and historic buildings
Submitting InstitutionsUniversity College London,
Unit of AssessmentBiological Sciences
Summary Impact TypeCultural
Research Subject Area(s)
Chemical Sciences: Other Chemical Sciences
Engineering: Materials Engineering
History and Archaeology: Curatorial and Related Studies
Summary of the impact
Research by Marianne Odlyha and her group at the Department of Biological
Sciences, Birkbeck, University of London, has led to the development of
minimally invasive analytical methods and portable tools (dosimeters) for
assessing damage to historical artefacts. These dosimeters are now in use
at locations around the world, including the Tate Gallery's store rooms,
English Heritage properties (Apsley House) and museums in Ghent, Cracow
and Mexico. Methods for assessing damage, and for mitigation of pollutant
impact on objects in museum enclosures, have been disseminated to
conservation professionals through workshops and training courses held
across Europe. The assessment and prevention of damage is vital to
conserve the cultural as well as the monetary value of artefacts.
The main theme of our research over the last 20 years has been the
assessment of damage to heritage materials, developing new ways of
detecting damage, analysing what is causing it, and finding the best way
of preventing further damage. We have focussed on the microclimates around
objects, for example inside enclosures such as painting frames and museum
display cases Working with collaborators in many European countries, we
have adapted and optimised minimally invasive analytical methods for
Our early research, beginning in the mid-90s, developed paint dosimeters
to assess the effect of environmental factors, including pollutants, on
canvas-supported paintings, combining this with characterisation of
physicochemical alterations in paintings. This work was undertaken as part
of a research consortium (co-ordinated by Odlyha at Birkbeck) working with
curators, conservation scientists and conservator-restorers, including at
the Tate Gallery in London. It was the first time that changes in paint
media and artists' varnishes were characterised at the macro and molecular
levels in accelerated aged paint films prepared according to traditional
Following on from this work, we began development of an electronic
dosimeter to assess possible damage to historical artefacts. We
collaborated with QuartzTec, a small UK company, to modify their existing
commercial instruments for suitability of operation in museum environments
and for continuous electronic recording of data. Novel coatings were
applied to piezoelectric quartz crystals (PQC). These were based on
artists' paint media and were found to be sensitive to the presence of
photo-oxidizing agents. These devices were tested through an EU-wide
project, entitled `Monitoring of Indoor Environments for Cultural Heritage
Preservation' (MIMIC), with devices being placed in seven major European
museums, castles and historic houses, including the Petrie Museum at UCL,
and English Heritage and National Trust properties. Research groups
interacted with the conservators and arranged for exposure and
documentation of the dosimeters together with monitoring of climate and
pollutant data. This enabled determination of dose-response functions for
the coatings and estimation of damage threshold levels .
In 2006 we collaborated on a further EU project (SENSORGAN) to examine
corrosion in lead-based organ pipes. Due to the size of the pipes, and
the need to monitor the air flowing into the pipes, we had to further
adapt our electronics, in particular by miniaturising the device. Also,
another coating was developed which was sensitive to the volatile organic
acids emitted from the wooden components of the organ and which were
identified as the cause of corrosion. Our main collaborators were Chalmers
University, Gothenburg, who provided support for calibrating the coated
PQC dosimeters and analytical information on the coatings. The new model
dosimeters were trialled in St Botolph's in London and in churches in
Sweden and Cracow. Concurrently, we collaborated on another EU project
(PROPAINT) with the University of Pisa on assessment of damage to
varnished paintings in microclimate frames. We further adapted our devices
to monitor conditions within the enclosed microclimate frames which are
used to protect paintings and also modified the electronics to allow for
battery operated devices. The overall research prototype included two
calibrated coatings sensitive to photooxidising agents and to volatile
organic acids .
We have played key roles in the research consortia of two projects
looking at damage to historical parchment (IDAP) and to historic
tapestries from collections at Hampton Court and in the Royal Palace in
Madrid (MODHT). In the former, we collaborated with Dr Laurent Bozec at
the UCL Eastman Dental Institute to develop methods for assessing damage
in collagen-based materials. This introduced for the first time the use of
atomic force microscopy (AFM) and micro-thermal analysis for
characterising changes in collagen at the nano-scale level, and mechanical
testing in controlled environments. A method for quantification of AFM
images of collagen was developed; this provided a measure of the extent of
intact ordered structure present in the imaged surface and hence damage [4,5].
Similar techniques were also applied to textiles (wool and silk) to
evaluate the extent of damage in historical tapestry samples .
References to the research
 Odlyha M, Cohen NS, Foster GM, West RH. Dosimetry of paintings:
determination of the degree of chemical change in museum exposed test
paintings (azurite tempera) by thermal and spectroscopic analysis
Thermochimica Acta. 2000;365(1):53-63. http://doi.org/cg3nsg
 Grønthoft T, Odlyha M, Mottner P, Dahlin E, Lopez-Aparcio S, Jakiela
S, Scharff M, Andrade G, Obarzanowski M, Ryhl-Svendsen M, Thickett D,
Hackney S, Wadum J. Pollution monitoring by dosimetry and passive
diffusion sampling for evaluation of environmental conditions for
paintings in microclimate frames. Journal of Cultural Heritage.
 Odlyha M, Cohen NS, Foster GM, Aliev A, Verdonck E, Grandy D. Dynamic
mechanical analysis (DMA), C-13 solid state NMR and micro-thermomechanical
studies of historical parchment. Journal of Thermal Analysis and
 Odlyha M, Wang Q, Foster GM, de Groot J, Horton M, Bozec L. Thermal
analysis of model and historic tapestries. Journal of Thermal Analysis and
Selected research grant support
Monitoring of Indoor environments for Cultural Heritage Preservation
(MIMIC). 2001-4, extended to 31/3/05. Sponsor: 4th Framework EC DG-RTD.
Coordinator and PI: M Odlyha (Birkbeck). Total awarded: €484,926. Birkbeck
Sensor system for detection of harmful environments for pipe organs
(SENSORGAN). 2006-9. Sponsor: 6th Framework EC DG-RTD. PI: M Odlyha
(Birkbeck). Birkbeck allocation: €278,959.
Improved Protection of Paintings during Exhibition, Storage and Transit
(PROPAINT). 2007-10. Sponsor: 6th Framework EC DG-RTD. PI: M Odlyha
(Birkbeck). Birkbeck allocation: €189,000.
Damage Assessment of Historical Parchments Parchment (IDAP). 2002-5.
Sponsor: 5th Framework EC DG-RTD. Coordinator: School of Conservation
Copenhagen. PI: M Odlyha (Birkbeck). Total awarded: €1,644,300. Birkbeck
Monitoring of Damage in Historic Tapestries (MODHT). 2002-5. Sponsor: 5th
Framework EC DG-RTD. Coordinator: Hampton Court Palace Conservation
Department. PI: M Odlyha (Birkbeck). Total awarded: €1,640,956. Birkbeck
Details of the impact
The underpinning research described above has had an impact both on
indoor monitoring of microclimates in museums and on damage assessment of
cultural heritage materials. It has succeeded in raising awareness to
risks of damage to objects on display in showcases and in enclosures
during storage or in transit. The dosimeter that we have developed is a
small portable tool with a fast response time that is practical for use in
museums and galleries. The dosimeter is easy for conservators to use in
order to evaluate whether inappropriate materials have been used in
showcases and as backboards for paintings, and the effect of different air
Use of dosimeters in museums
Throughout our research programme, we have worked with the Tate Gallery
to develop and test our devices so that they are useful and relevant to
professional conservators. The Tate now uses our dosimeters to monitor
levels of air pollution in its store rooms and identify effects on
paintings and sculptures. The Conservation Department at the Tate report
that: "The Piezoelectric quartz crystal dosimeter PQC has provided a
means of gaining a much better idea of the extent of air pollution in
store rooms and, more importantly, identifying its effect on the
collection of paintings and sculpture...We can now start putting into
practice new routines, where necessary using better (and more expensive)
materials, and prioritise our decisions for a remedial process that will
take many years to complete" [a].
Other museums have changed their practices as a result of using our
dosimeters. The Museo Bellas Artes in Valencia, for example, used
dosimeters to monitor the conditions within microclimate frames. As a
result of these tests, the museum now only uses acid-free materials inside
the frames, and avoids certain materials, such as chloroform which was
previously used in the joints of the frames. The dosimeters have also been
used to identify pollutants from cleaning products used in regular
maintenance in the museum [b].
Our dosimeters were used in 2007-8 by English Heritage to assess the
oxidising potential of the atmosphere in two of their properties: Apsley
House and Kenwood House, both of which house internationally important
painting collections. The analyses allowed important management decisions
to be taken on refitting the air filtration system and the impact of dust
from the gravel at the entrance to Kenwood House. The lead-coated PQC
crystals determined the risk to paintings from microclimate frames used to
protect them against relative humidity fluctuations and internally
generated pollutants. The research has increased the use of such frames
that are now a standard approach to displaying vulnerable paintings in
historic house environments [c].
Use of dosimeters in art transport: the Lady with an Ermine
In 2011, our dosimeters provided vital information during the transport
and exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine. There
had been considerable controversy about whether the painting should be
able to leave its permanent home in Poland [d] but, as part of a
monitoring programme, our dosimeters were placed within the micro-climate
showcase in which the painting was exhibited at the Royal Palace in Madrid
to monitor the level of corrosiveness of the air within the frame. Art
transport company SIT-Artyd report that this monitoring showed: "good
results that warranted the continuity of the tour to London and Berlin,
before the return to home in Poland" [e]. As a result of
this successful experience, SIT are now promoting and including the
dosimetry in their exhibition, storage and transport services for museums
in Madrid, Valencia and Barcelona.
Dissemination of our research to professional conservators
We have disseminated our research findings to professional conservators
across Europe and beyond, through our collaborative work, and through
presentation of our results at a series of workshops and conferences aimed
at professionals. For example, through the IDAP project we developed an
algorithm for processing AFM images to allow damage assessment of collagen
fibres. Damage to collagen at the fibre and fibril level is now taught at
regular workshops held by the School of Conservation in Denmark [g].
Odlyha herself has presented at many conferences, including in Turin,
Vienna, Evora, Portugal, and recently in Madrid and has participated in
workshops held in London and Madrid. These were well attended by
conservation professionals from many organisations including the British
Museum the National Gallery in London, and the Musée National Picasso
(Paris) [i]. Odlyha has also edited, and written an introduction
to, a chapter on cultural heritage in the Journal of Thermal Analysis and
Calorimetry (May 2011).
Sources to corroborate the impact
[a] Letter from Conservation Department, Tate Britain. Available on
[b] Letter from Chemist Conservator, Museo Bellas Artes de Valencia.
Available on request.
[c] Letter from Senior Conservation Scientist, English Heritage.
Available on request.
[e] Letter from SIT Departamento Tecnico, SIT-Artyd, Madrid, Spain.
Available on request.
[f] Corroborating testimony available from Associate Professor at the
Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Conservation. Contact details
[g] Professional Education — courses during the period 2008-13:
Sep 2008 3-day practical course on Improved Damage Assessment
of Parchment, Turin
May 2009 5-day EC Cost Action D42 Training School on "Indoor
Air Quality in Museums, Galleries and Archives: Analytical Methods and
Preventive Conservation Strategies." Vienna, Austria.
Sep 2009 4-day workshop on dosimetry and damage assessment,
2010 3-day postgraduate course to conservation
scientists/conservators at the School of Conservation, Copenhagen.
2010, 2011 RSC TAC (Thermal Analysis and Calorimetry) short
courses, including applications to analysis of cultural heritage objects
April 2013 Seminar held at UCL Centre for Sustainable heritage:
"Towards remotely assessing heritage environments and materials".
Attended by 10-15 people, including conservation professionals (e.g.
from National Trust, English Heritage)
May 2013 MEMORI project workshop held at Birkbeck College. 32
participants from museums and galleries around the UK, and private