C5 - Impact of research on the solvent effects on East Asian lacquer by Imperial College chemistry department on the conservation of decorative art objects
Submitting InstitutionImperial College London
Unit of AssessmentChemistry
Summary Impact TypeCultural
Research Subject Area(s)
Chemical Sciences: Physical Chemistry (incl. Structural)
History and Archaeology: Curatorial and Related Studies
Summary of the impact
A model of collaborative research excellence describes the work led by
Imperial College on the conservation of the Mazarin Chest. Renowned as one
of the finest pieces of Japanese export lacquer in the world, the Mazarin
Chest is viewed by over 3 million people per year in London's V&A
museum. Its preservation has allowed it to travel and culturally enrich
global audiences, most recently at exhibitions in USA and Japan. The
research on the solvent effects on the preservation of Asian lacquerware
is universally recognized as changing the working practice of conservators
and curators and is now well established in the teaching and mentoring of
heritage organisations around the world.
The original underpinning research quantified the polarity (i.e.
solvent-solute interactions) of various solvents. It was carried out
within the Imperial Chemistry Department in 2001-2002 by Dr (now
Professor) T. Welton, Imperial PDRA P. A. Salter (EPSRC, 2000-2002) and
three Imperial College students, L. Crowhurst, P. Mawdsley (both EPSRC DTA
funded) and J. M. Perez-Arlandis (EPSRC DTA CASE studentship with Kodak)
within the Imperial Chemistry Department. This research produced the 2003
paper `Solvent-solute interactions in ionic liquids' by Crowhurst
et al.  which formed part of the citation for Prof Welton's 2007 RSC
Sir Christopher Ingold Lectureship.
The paper describes solvent-solute interactions in ionic liquids and
molecular solvents and how alternative methodologies give different
results, demonstrating the importance of the solute in determining the
observed solvent effects. This is an important consideration for
understanding how solvents interact with any given material's chemical
structure. This is a vital consideration when using solvents in
In 2004 this paper brought Prof Welton's research to the attention of
Shayne Rivers, a senior conservator in the conservation department of the
Victoria and Albert Museum, London, a UK non-departmental public body
funded by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and the world's
largest museum of decorative arts and design. Ms Rivers was co-managing a
V&A project to conserve the Mazarin Chest, the most important example
of Japanese export lacquer in the world, with an estimated value of £10-15
million. This object, the centrepiece of the V&A's Japanese
collection, had been removed from display in 1999 due to its damaged and
unstable condition. It had become clear that knowledge of the solvent
effects on Asian lacquer was insufficient to allow the Chest to be cleaned
without significant risk of permanent damage to, or loss of, the
decoration, where most of the aesthetic, historic and technical value of
this unique object is located. Ms Rivers contacted Prof Welton to ask him
to assist her.
As a result, in 2005 Prof Welton and Ms Rivers established an AHRB funded
Collaborative Doctoral Award entitled `Conserving Tangible and Intangible
Cultural Heritage: Removing Degraded Western Varnish from photo-degraded
Japanese Lacquer' [G1]. This was designed to guide Ms Rivers' conservation
practice by using quantitative scientific evidence of the effects of
solvents on these materials to identify whether, and if so which, solvent
treatments have the potential to remove degraded western varnish without
damaging underlying photo-degraded Japanese Lacquer. The research was
carried out from 2005-8 in the Imperial Chemistry Department with joint
supervision by Chemistry Department staff (Prof. T. Welton and Dr — now
Prof — M. Shaffer), V&A curatorial (Dr R. Faulkner) and conservation
(S. Rivers) staff.
Key findings of this research were presented at an international
conference in 2009  and published in English and Japanese in 2011 .
The Imperial research provided detailed information on the swelling and
leaching effects of a range of solvents used by conservators when cleaning
and stabilising Asian lacquer during conservation treatments. It
established, for the first time, which solvents could be used without
causing damage to Asian lacquer and the risks involved if less benign
solvents were required. It also emphasised that due to the kinetics of the
swelling process, the technique used by the conservator may be as
important as solvent choice, reinforcing the inextricable
inter-relationship between chemistry and individual conservation practice.
References to the research
(* References that best indicate quality of underpinning research)
 *L. Crowhurst, P. R. Mawdsley, J. M. Perez-Arlandis, P. A. Salter,
T. Welton, `Solvent-solute interactions in ionic liquids',
Phys. Chem. Chem. Phys., 5, 2790-2794 (2003). DOI,
351 citations (as of 1/7/13).
 *T. Welton, `Solvent effects on East Asian lacquer',
Lecture presented at `Crossing Borders — The Conservation, Science and
Material Culture of East Asian Lacquer' Conference, Victoria and Albert
Museum, 30-31/10/09. [N.B. This was a (sold out) conference attended by an
international audience of 150 conservators, curators and students].
 *Carolyn McSharry, Rupert Faulkner, Shayne Rivers, Milo
S.P. Shaffer and Tom Welton, `Solvent effects on East
Asian lacquer (Toxicodendron vernicifluum)', in S. Rivers, R.
Faulkner and B. Pretzel (eds), `East Asian Lacquer: Material, Culture,
Science and Conservation', London, Archetype Publications, ISBN: 9781904982609
(2011). [N.B. Publication of this peer reviewed dual language publication
was funded by the Getty Foundation.]
[G1] Arts and Humanities Research Board Collaborative Doctoral Award
(CDA), `Conserving Tangible and Intangible Cultural Heritage:
Removing Degraded Western Varnish from photo-degraded Japanese Lacquer',
2005-08, PI: Prof T. Welton, award covered Imperial fees for three years,
plus £14,500 per annum maintenance.
Details of the impact
The impact of the Imperial College Chemistry Department led research on
solvent effects on east Asian lacquer has been significant and far
Impact on the V&A
It allowed accurate risk-benefit analysis that underpinned the use of
solvents for cleaning, removal of degraded Western varnish and
consolidation of the light-damaged surface of Mazarin Chest [A].
Treatments based on this research stabilised this object for an estimated
50-100 years and allowed it to travel to exhibitions in Japan and the USA
in 2008-9, with combined attendances of more than 200,000 (Kyoto National
Museum >67,000; Suntory Museum of Art, Tokyo >36,000; J. Paul Getty
Museum >100,000) [B]. The promotional material for the Getty Museum
visit, 3/3/09-24/5/09, described the conservation treatment as having been
"Backed by thorough scientific and art historical research" [C, p4
of exhibition brochure]. In October 2009 the Chest was returned to
permanent display in the V&A's Toshiba Gallery of Japanese Art to
coincide with the staging of the international conference, `Crossing
Borders: The Conservation, Science and Material Culture of East Asian
Lacquer' . There were around 3,000,000 visitors to the V&A in South
Kensington in both 2012/13 and 2011/12 (the V&A does not count visitor
numbers to individual permanent galleries).
The V&A is home to one of the most significant collections of
Japanese lacquer in any Western collection. It is also home to smaller
collections of Chinese, Korean, Burmese and Thai lacquer. The knowledge
and experience gained though the collaboration with Prof Welton and the
Imperial Chemistry Department have been applied to all subsequent
conservation treatments of East Asian lacquer at the V&A [D]. The
beneficiaries of this impact were the V&A and its audiences (UK and
international) through improved preservation and presentation of East
Asian lacquer objects that form part of the UK national art collection.
Impact on the British Museum
The research on the solvent effects on East Asian lacquer has also had an
impact on the conservation department at the British Museum. The British
Museum has 3,245 objects in its collection that are catalogued as
containing a variety of lacquer, many of which had been waxed or recoated
prior to their donation. The museum testifies that (i) the "research
undertaken at Imperial College in collaboration with the V&A,
published in East Asian Lacquer: Material Culture, Science and
Conservation in 2011, has been crucially important in outlining the
possible effects of a variety of solvents on these coatings and on the
lacquer", (ii) it has "proved to be an excellent reference point"
and (iii) is always recommended as required reading before students
approach the cleaning of a lacquer object [F]. In conjunction with the
museum's own increased awareness of the material history of their
collections, "the work undertaken at Imperial College in collaboration
with the V&A has changed the way [they] clean East Asian lacquer"
Impact on UK and international curation and conservation of East Asian
Imperial College Chemistry Department undertook a survey of conservators,
curators and scientists in May-June 2013 to assess the impact of Carolyn
McSharry and Prof Welton's research into the solvent effects on East Asian
lacquer [E]. The survey was posted on 11 May 2013 on the Conservation
Distlist, which includes conservators from several specialities,
scientists, curators, archivists, librarians and academics from a number
of disciplines; the survey was also posted on the more specialised Lacquer
Reach of solvent research impact: There were more than 100
respondents of whom 80% identified themselves as curators or conservators
working with East Asian lacquer. Respondents worked in 17 countries,
though the UK and US predominated. 50% were based in public institutions,
25% in universities and 25% in private practice. They represented a very
experienced field of experts, with 79% having at least 5 years, and 63%
with more than 10 years of experience in their discipline (i.e. curation,
conservation, science or teaching) [E].
Significance of solvent research impact:
72% of respondents overall were aware of the Imperial Chemistry
Department's collaborative research on the solvent effects on lacquer.
Within this group:
- 93% of respondents rated solvent effects on lacquer research as very
important or important to them (68% very important; 25% important).
- 92% indicated that the research on solvent effects had changed their
understanding of lacquer a lot (47%) or some (45%). None said their
understanding had not changed at all.
- 75% said that it had changed their practice a lot (13%) or some (62%)
- 74% said they use or refer to this research a lot (32%) or some (42%)
when teaching or mentoring
- 80% recommend the 2011 paper  to others (39% a lot; 41% some).
- Of the 50% of respondents who worked in public institutions/museums,
100% of the UK respondents and 89% of the international respondents
rated the solvent research as very important or important. Impact on UK
and international public institutions was substantial for a change in
knowledge (92%); 50% used the research for teaching and mentoring and
88% recommended the research to others. This impact was reflected in the
conservation of objects held in public institutions — 89% of UK
institutional respondents involved in the treatment of lacquer objects
said all of their conservation treatments had been influenced by the
solvent effects research, the remaining 11% said up to 2/3 of their
treatments had been influenced. 29% of international institutional
respondents reported that all of their treatments had been influenced
and 41% said that up to 1/3 of their treatments had been influenced.
Respondents were invited to comment on the solvent effects on lacquer
research. The following is a sample of the comments received:
(i) `The results were eye-opening. Extremely important research which
will change the way we approach degraded lacquer treatments' and `It
has done so much to influence our thinking about the treatment of
lacquer. It brought together the different approaches in a discussion
which we can all benefit from' (National Maritime Museum).
(ii) `This is very important and curators need to understand this
process and effect as well' (British Museum).
(iii) `Should be required reading'
Comments such as (i), (ii), and (iii) touch on the legacy impact of the
research. Although experienced specialist lacquer conservators may have
understood many of the findings already (reflected in the 25% who said
their practice had not changed very much), they had gained this knowledge
through (unpublished) trial and error tests. As many solvents cause
permanent damage to lacquer, the publication of the article  allows all
conservators, regardless of their relative experience, the opportunity to
make informed judgements without the necessity of damaging valuable
objects in the process of gaining empirical knowledge.
Respondents were also invited to comment on the Mazarin Chest project
more generally and the following is a sample of the comments received:
(i) `The project has been very influential in our lacquer research at
the Getty. The Crossing Borders symposium was exceptional in its breadth
and quality of presentations. The book is an excellent summary of the
symposium, standing as an important resource for those not fortunate
enough to attend, and is a ready reference for us in our work. I commend
all of you for having the courage to inquire about the impact that the
project has had on the field, because few institutions dare to take that
type of risk. In conclusion, I consider the Mazarin chest project to be
a smashing success that sets the bar for other collaborative projects
very high indeed. I applaud all who have been involved!' and `I
believe the Mazarin chest conservation project is one of the best and
most influential project in the lacquer conservation field' (Getty
(ii) `As noted previously, the project gave validity (in my eyes) to
the use of urushi-based treatments where appropriate (and with
appropriate training) — no other major museum has published urushi-based
treatments (or possibly undertaken them) so this was a significant
moment in the history of lacquer conservation in the West' (National
Gallery of Victoria, Australia).
(iii) `Japanese conservators have been using methods without thinking
very much. Mazarin Chest project made us to re-think about these
good-old methods are suitable or not for particular purposes' (Kogei
Sozai Kenkyujo, Japan)
Many of the survey comments also referred very positively to the effort
made by the Imperial/V&A team to publicise and disseminate the
research, including the widely heralded dual language English/Japanese
website for the project [A, B].
Sources to corroborate the impact
[A] The Conservation of the Mazarin Chest website at the V&A,
[B] The Mazarin Chest project website at the V&A,
[C] J. Paul Getty Museum `Tales in Sprinkled Gold: Japanese Lacquer for
European Collectors', March 3-May 24 2009, exhibition
on 16/7/13) and exhibition brochure,
[D] Senior Conservator, Victoria & Albert Museum, South Kensington
[E] Impact of the Mazarin Chest Survey, Imperial College 2013 (survey
results available on request).
[F] Letter from the Keeper of Conservation and Scientific Research, The
British Museum, 14/10/13 (letter available from Imperial on request)