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Nuclear Science for Art: Workshop Focuses on Safe Practices

Painting by Frans Hals, displayed at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. (Photo: Rijksmuseum, the Netherlands)

Radiation is commonly used for detailed analysis as well as preservation of delicate paintings, but it is imperative to ensure that the techniques used do not damage the material being analysed. This was the focus of 40 experts across multiple disciplines who attended an IAEA technical meeting in the Netherlands last week to develop and identify the best practices for examining and treating paintings with ionizing radiations.

“Historical paintings play a large role in the cultural heritage of most regions of the world and so taking all the steps possible to make sure that they are being adequately analysed and preserved are of the utmost importance,” said Aliz Simon from the Division of Physical and Chemical Sciences at the IAEA and meeting co-chair.

At the meeting, entitled “Developing Strategies for Safe Analysis of Paintings and Paint Materials”, curators, conservation scientists, radiation specialists, physicists, chemists, material and accelerator scientists worked in unison to better understand the effects of ionizing radiation on paintings and paint materials and to identify the least invasive protocols to perform analysis.

The techniques included the use of intense photon, electron, ion and neutron beams produced by particle accelerators and research reactors for analysis of paintings from the past, such as to scan whole paintings or image small parts of paint samples to learn more about their composition, manufacturing methods and history.

“Recent developments in high-resolution imaging bring innovative strategies to the study of paintings, particularly on the nanoscale. However, we need to better understand the effects of the corresponding nuclear interactions with the material studied, for the collected results to give their full meaning,” said Loïc Bertrand, Director of the ancient material research platform IPANEMA at the SOLEIL Synchrotron in France.

The meeting participants developed a risk assessment strategy document called “Irradiation History Wizard”, which includes several aspects of the analysis, such as its benefits and risks, and alternate routes to minimize material alteration while still optimizing the analytical data produced. “This document will create a new way of thinking and will help both the analysts who are conducting the irradiations and curators who are the owners of the heritage materials or objects to better understand and predict the possible effects of irradiations,” said Ineke Joosten, the local host, technical meeting co-chair, Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (RCE). “The meeting participants are coming from or collaborating with around 70 museums, so the risk assessment strategy developed during this meeting will certainly help our common understanding and will reach the users of nuclear analytical techniques in an efficient and direct way.”

The results of this meeting, in collaboration with the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands, the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam and IPANEMA, will not only spread awareness but also provide Member States with some practical and tangible recommendations, and suggest development of new tools for the safe analysis of materials in ancient paintings.

The IAEA’s role in promoting the applications of nuclear techniques in the field of cultural heritage artefacts is unique as it covers both the analysis (exploration and forensics) and preservation. In order to ensure the safety of heritage materials when radiation based tools are used for analytical purposes, the IAEA has initiated activities focusing on ‘safe analyses’, addressing several categories of art, archaeological and paleontological materials. Such activities enhance the collaboration and exploit synergies between the extended community working on the effects of irradiation and the heritage science community.