Science and Heritage Programme

Advancing heritage science with spectroscopic imaging

Imperial College London 

Award holder - Dr Satoko Tanimoto


Advancing heritage science with spectroscopic imaging

Imperial College London

Dr S Tanimoto
Amount Awarded: £269,978.00

The conservation, preservation and interpretation of our cultural heritage requires a multidisciplinary approach, bringing together experts in the fields of science and the arts and humanities. Analysis of the materials of our cultural heritage collections has a vital role in understanding how and why they were made and used, their conservation history, the origin and mechanisms of material decay, and how deterioration has affected appearance and perception. It is part of a responsible modern approach to conservation.

Microsamples from paintings and objects are often prepared as cross-sections to examine their highly revealing microstructure and stratigraphy. The distribution of materials within the layer structure, or even within an individual layer, reflects the working practices of the artist/maker, the changes that have been initiated by environmental conditions, pollutants or the passage of time, as well as the use and conservation history, including interventions by restorers. The distribution helps to differentiate between original materials and later restorations or additions, as well as deterioration products, which is crucial when undertaking conservation treatments and interpreting the original appearance of the object. It is also important in understanding the causes of decay, informing decisions on storage and display of objects. Although analysis of inorganic components in a cross-section is reasonably straightforward, this is not the case for organic materials, which are very difficult to characterise with the techniques currently available to heritage scientists.

The project will develop the application of micro-ATR-FTIR spectroscopic imaging combined with data processing using multivariate methods to the analysis of cross sections from cultural heritage paintings and objects. Other conventional IR spectroscopic techniques are of proven value in the field but this emerging technique is the only one that has the potential to become a routine and rapid method to simultaneously characterise both organic and inorganic materials directly (at a molecular level) on cross-sections, at the same time as determining their distribution with the necessary high spatial resolution. This would greatly improve analysis of organic surface coatings or components, understanding of which is crucial for solubility behaviour during cleaning of objects. It will ensure that advice from heritage scientists on the care and conservation of collections is based on the best possible data, improving conservation practice and our ability to preserve our national collections for future generations.

The spectroscopy expertise at Imperial College London (host organisation) will be combined with expertise in the heritage field at the National Gallery and the British Museum (project partners). The postdoctoral researcher, hosted at Imperial College London, will develop the methodology of ATR-FTIR imaging on test samples, before applying it to a wide range of samples from real objects (involving time working at the partner institutions). This will demonstrate the versatility of the technique and at the same time generate new information which can answer unsolved questions about the objects and paintings studied that cannot be obtained using current techniques. The new skills that the postdoctoral researcher will develop during the research, and the experience gained from working in a leading spectroscopic imaging group as well as two prominent cultural heritage institutions, will increase capacity in heritage science. Interaction with curators and conservators will ensure that their needs influence the development of the research and that the new insights gained into the objects studied can directly improve the way in which the National Gallery, the British Museum and other institutions charged with the care of cultural heritage interpret, study and present their collections to the public.