This article was published in our newsletter. Sign up here.
Centuries-old sculptures, paintings and manuscripts often have some fascinating secrets or interesting stories to tell. When cultural treasures are destroyed or fall victim to external factors such as light, dust, humidity or fluctuating temperatures, those secrets and stories are also lost with them. No matter what the cause, this is a very great loss. To preserve cultural treasures with due care and professionalism for future generations, experts in many disciplines are needed – not only art historians and museum specialists, but also scientists.
Careful preservation and digitisation
That is why academic institutions in Germany joined forces in 2008 to form the Research Alliance Cultural Heritage. It also includes the model project “Fraunhofer-Innovationen für Kulturerbe” (Fraunhofer Innovations for Cultural Heritage, only in German), in which chemists, physicists and computer scientists from 16 research institutes are cooperating with specialists from museums and libraries in Dresden, the Saxon state capital. Since the end of 2015 they have been working on new methods of preserving and digitising objects in their collections in the most careful and gentle way possible.
Imaging for sculptures
The researchers are not satisfied with conventional 3D models – they want to get inside the artworks, but without damaging them. “We hope that these new 3D models of sculptures from the State Art Collections in Dresden will provide us with information about the properties of the materials and about any damage that is not visible from the outside”, says Dr Johanna Leissner from the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft. To this end, one of the technologies used by the researchers is ultrasound, an imaging method familiar from medical diagnostics. Because gel would attack the material, they are developing a special dry contact agent that does not interact with the surface. Furthermore, the researchers are using terahertz waves to X-ray the sculptures. This is done with a technology developed at the Fraunhofer Institute for Telecommunications – it is likewise non-destructive and involves no radioactive radiation.
Radiation for historical manuscripts
Saxony’s State Library is also employing innovative techniques in a bid to save the early fifteenth century court records in its collection for future generations. The handwritten sheets were damaged by water and moisture when they were moved into cellars to protect them from bombing raids during the Second World War. The plan now is to carefully scan the fragments and then use specially developed algorithms to put them back together again, like a puzzle. The virtual sheets will then be used as a template for restoring the documents in physical form. To this end, the fragments are coated with a cellulose-based polymer and radiated with electrons. Stimulated by the particles, a chemical reaction is set in motion and the molecular structure inside the paper is repaired.
Technologies are important – but conveying values is also vital
“We need technical innovations to preserve our cultural heritage“, explains Dr Johanna Leissner, a chemist who has been conducting research in the field of conservation studies for more than 20 years. “But that alone is not enough. It is at least equally important to convey the value and significance of cultural assets to people.” That is why economists and social scientists at the Fraunhofer Center for International Management and Knowledge Economy in Leipzig are exploring what specifically defines the social value of cultural heritage and how it can be assigned a numerical value. This would allow a cost-benefit calculation to be undertaken for any investment in restoration measures – thus helping to persuade those decision-makers who think first and foremost in economic terms.
Nonetheless, it is never just facts and figures that make a cultural asset so valuable. Often it is precisely the stories or memories that are associated with them. And they are priceless in any case.