Eight projects receive funding for collaborations between scientists and museums with the application of data science

26 January 2018

The Netherlands Institute for Conservation, Art and Science (NICAS) brings together the various disciplines of art history and conservation with science. For this call of proposals from NICAS, with a focus on data science, NWO has awarded funding to four research projects and four seed money proposals.

The budget for this round amounted 1.5 million euros by NWO, which is allocated for collaborations between scientists and museums with the application of data science. The institute is an initiative of NWO Science in collaboration with the Rijksmuseum, the Cultural Heritage Agency, the University of Amsterdam and Delft University of Technology. The institute strives for improvement of quality when it comes to the interpretation, preservation and presentation of artworks.

An international assessment committee has assessed the proposals and issued an advice to the Board of the NWO Science Domain. They decided to award funding to the projects described below.

The awarded research projects

3D understanding of degradation products in paintings
Dr. K. Keune (Rijksmuseum)
Partners: University of Antwerp, UU, UvA

Paintings are subject to various alterations over time and nowadays often have a different appearance than originally intended by the artist. In this research project, we want to visualize - in 3D – the degradation processes that take place in the painting, specifically the degradation of arsenic- and leadcontaining pigments. A better/deeper understanding is necessary in order to delay or completely stop these degradation processes. To achieve this, data fusion technology will be used, a technology that is already used in heterogeneous catalyst research to combine various types of imaging information in 3D. This involves combining 2D distribution maps of the paint components on the macroscopic and microscopic scales, spectroscopic information and 3D density volumes obtained by computer tomography. The generated model provides a 3D image of the paint composition making it possible to visualize the degradation and migration processes in the paint layers in relation to the paint surface. Such knowledge is relevant to conservators for a better understanding of paint degradation phenomena in order to develop and tailor more appropriate conservation treatments. For art historians, the 3D models of the paint build-up will provide insight and a means to obtain a better understanding of the techniques employed by the artists involved.

Beeldvorming: A non-invasive look inside statues
Dr. L. van Eijck (Technische Universiteit Delft)
Partners: Rijsmuseum, RCE

This research project unites neutron tomography, gamma tomography and gamma spectroscopy to reveal the interior structures of bronzes. The result of the project is a 3D element-specific density distribution of the interior of such statues. The applied techniques are completely non-invasive and the results will be used to determine how ancient statues were produced. The applied methods are particularly suited to investigate the interior of precious metal art objects. The main challenge of the project is to fuse the data of the different modalities into a quantitative 3D reconstruction.

CT for Art: from Images to Patterns (IMPACT4Art)
Prof. dr. K.J. Batenburg (Centrum Wiskunde en Informatica)
Partners: Rijksmuseum

Most objects in the collections of cultural history museums can only be observed from the outside. However, the inside of the objects, which we cannot see, often contains a wealth of information about the making of the objects and their condition. Using 3D scanning techniques, such as CT scanning, these hidden traces can be visualized: finger prints of the maker that can be seen inside the clay, tool marks that tell us about the tools that have been used to craft the object, year rings inside wooden panels that can be used for dating, etc.

The standard 3D scanning techniques have never been developed with these applications in mind, and often yield poor image quality when applied to cultural heritage objects. In the IMPACT4Art project, we will develop novel algorithms and software that will enable us to create accurate 3D images of a broad range of museum objects, making scans within the walls of the museum. The software will automatically detect patterns that provide information about the origin and condition of the object. The work will be carried out in close collaboration between data scientists and experts on the museum collection. By applying these techniques to various objects from the Rijksmuseum collection, we will seek answers to questions such as: “we hear something rattling when we shake that statue; what is it?” and “can we discern similar finger prints in a collection of terracotta statues?”.

A multi-scale and uncertainty approach for the analysis of the aging of timber art objects adhesively bonded by animal glues
Prof. dr. Ir. A.S.J. Suiker (Technische Universiteit Eindhoven)
Partners: Rijksmuseum, TU Delft, CWI

Museums and cultural heritage institutions, besides making their collections accessible to the public, have the important duty of preserving their art-pieces for future generations. Among the possible risks art objects may be exposed to, degradation and aging due to climate fluctuations is one of the most debated topics within the conservation community. To circumvent these problems, during the twentieth century, strict indoor climate specifications have been developed. These are, however, associated with an environmental-unfriendly policy, involving high energy consumptions and costs for climate installations. Museums are currently required to set environmental sustainability as a priority of interest. This can be achieved by avoiding unnecessarily strict climate specifications, without causing any damage to the collections. Extensive research must be therefore done in this direction to assess the risk of degradation of highly susceptible objects, as a function of the climate conditions. This project focuses precisely on the issue of long-term, climate-related degradation/aging of wooden panel paintings and decorated furniture, in which damage phenomena are often due to the failure of the glue joints between wood boards. This has been observed in a museum study at the Rijksmuseum performed within the NWO-Climate4Wood project; yet, a physically-based explanation of these damage mechanisms is still lacking. Accordingly, this project proposes a research strategy that bridges the gap between the mechanistic understanding of degradation/aging of wooden panels and the object-related observations from conservation practice. This will assist conservators in minimizing degradation of the artefacts and in applying a more environment-friendly conditioning of the indoor climate.

The awarded seed money proposals

Imaging, Identification and Interpretation of Glass in Paint
Prof. dr. H.H.M. Hermens (Rijksmuseum Amsterdam)
Partners: UvA, National Gallery Washington, VU, British Museum, National Gallery London, UU

Painters from medieval times onwards used tricks to improve optical and handling properties of their paints. Historical treatises and manuals on painting techniques provide insights into these methods. Yet, some techniques are rarely mentioned and may represent a mix of standard studio practice, personal preferences, or workshop secrets, and hence were not written down. The extensive presence of ground colourless and sometimes coloured glassy particles in paint layers found through scientific analysis belongs to those more mysterious methods. Why did painters add glass to their paints, was it purely economical to add bulk, as drier, and does it impact on the viscosity of the paint, or on transparency? Did they try to imitate glassy effects?

We will use novel data science on a unique paint cross section database (c. 12,000 samples) from 14th-17th-century European paintings in the Rijksmuseum collection, to build search tools that help us trace and analyse the presence of glass in cross sections stored in this large dataset. This may tell us where and why artists added glass to their paints and if there is a system to this. We will also examine new sampling techniques to extract single particles from paint cross sections, and use analytical methods in a novel application, to establish the chemical composition of the glass, to determine its origin, and indicate possible technical crossovers with the glass and ceramics industries. Through an interdisciplinary collaboration between data scientists, (technical) art historians, and scientists we want to reveal one of the more elusive painters’ ‘secrets’.

21st Century Connoisseurship: Developing Smart Tools for the Analysis of 17th Century Paintings
Prof. dr. R.G. Erdmann (Rijksmuseum Amsterdam)
Partners: Frans Hals museum, UvA

On the market there is confusion about a large number of potential counterfeits of old masters.  This raises questions about the way in which the authenticity of paintings of old masters is determined and how the method(s) can be improved.  In this research project, digigal tools are developed that facilitate tracking of similarities and differences in paintings, both in the visible area and in deeper layers.  To do this, insights from art history are combined with chemical research techniques and recent developments in computer science.  The tools are developed on the basis of three case studies.  In this way, new insights are developed in the paining technique and studio practice of Frans Hals (1582/83-1666), and controversial pieces are compared in a new, deeper way to uncontested originals of the same type.  The tools are tested in collaboration with an international group of experts.

Irradiation Passport for Art
Prof. dr. M. Tromp (Universiteit van Amsterdam)
Partners: Rijksmuseum, RCE

Objects of art are increasingly exposed to ionizing radiation. Modern analytical techniques use the interactions of photons, electrons and ions with materials to identify the materials in the object. But interaction means that irradiation may induce visible or invisible alterations, either permanent or temporary. The consequences of radiation in terms of long-term effects are not fully known, as also showed at a Technical meeting in Amsterdam organized by the IAEA in 2017. Exposure to radiation is of a cumulative nature, which means that previous exposure may alter – or change the sensitivity of objects or research samples. Therefore, art objects as well as research samples in the field of cultural heritage need an irradiation passport, recording the location, total exposure and circumstances of use of radiation. Without such a passport, objects may be exposed to dangerously high amounts of radiation, results of analyses may be misinterpreted, and research into the long-term effects of irradiation of objects of art is impossible. The IPA project will develop an irradiation passport for art objects and research samples and will implement this passport in the conservation field. In addition, the passport will be tested in a pilot project, irradiating a well-characterized sample (dyed wool) with different radiation sources and studying the changes that occur. The IPA project is led by conservation scientists, a physical chemist and a conservator and has the support of an international team with different irradiation expertise, in which important synchrotron-institutes and research institutes involved in research in cultural heritage are represented.

CarpetACT: Automated interpretation of X-radiographs and CT scans to assess Islamic carpet construction
Prof. dr. ing. M.R. van Bommel (Universiteit van Amsterdam)
Partners: Rijksmuseum, AMC

Islamic knotted-pile carpets are remarkable art objects and rich historical sources in museums around the world. The study of their complex characteristics can tell plenty about the date, the context and the societies in which they were produced. Art historians usually focus on the visual observation of their design and weaving structure, but this can be a rather subjective and laborious examination. Therefore, analytical methods that enhance this approach urge further exploration, so that more accurate art historical interpretations can be obtained.

In this project, an interdisciplinary combination of art history with analytical and data sciences will be developed, with the aim to improve the weaving examination of these complex carpets, i.e., the spin of threads; the ply and twist of yarns; the thread count and density; and the weaving structure of warps, wefts and piles. Hence, non-invasive analytical techniques, X-radiography and CT scanning, will be tested on a group of 16th- and 17th-century Islamic knotted-pile carpets or fragments of these objects, belonging to the Rijksmuseum collection. Machine-learning methods will be developed to process and compare digital photographs from these objects and a large quantity of data obtained with X-radiography and CT scanning.

Within this feasibility study, the main aim is to investigate the possibilities and limitations of the aforementioned techniques, and to investigate how data science can enhance the interpretation process of their results. When successful, this approach will be a valuable contribution to historical research and, in particular, improve and accelerate the technological research of historical textiles.


Source: NWO