Conservation of Cultural Heritage Objects

SUMMER.  Pchem problem set. SUMMER.  Ancient Israel test.  SUMMER.  These are the thoughts that have been running through my head the past few weeks.   Ever since I learned that I had received Charles Center support for summer research I’ve been ready to bring on the infamous Williamsburg heat and humidity and get started.  I have titled this project, “The Interface of Science and the Humanities:  Conservation of Cultural Heritage Objects,” and will be working under the guidance of Professor Wustholz in the Chemistry department.  For the past two semesters we have been collaborating with Shelly Svoboda of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s Paintings Conservation Department using Surface Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy (SERS) as an analytical tool to identify the artist’s materials in various paintings.  The identification of these components is particularly helpful to conservators who can use the information to better preserve national treasures.  In comparison to other scientific techniques, SERS has one significant advantage; it requires mere nanograms of sample to be taken from a painting where as other methods such as High Pressure Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) require milligrams of sample.  That is a difference of six orders of magnitude! 

This is one of the many aspects of the project intrigues me, sometimes I can’t believe that we can learn so much about a painting and its artist from such a minute spec of sample.  Every time we have collected samples from historic paintings we have had to magnify our work area and use extreme care so as not to lose any samples.  It is surprisingly easy to do when they are so tiny! 

Over the past year, we focused particularly on identifying red pigments and actually achieved some success.  We looked at three 18th century paintings, two were portraits by an early American artist named Robert Feke and the other was The Portrait of Issac Barrè painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds.  We were able to determine that both artists used the pigment Carmine Lake in their flesh tones, despite the fact that Reynolds once referred to it as a “treacherous” color since it is notorious for fading.   These results really excited me for the future of this project.  I feel prepared to tackle more challenging questions and dilemmas in the art conservation world such as the identification of blue and green pigments as well as the mordants and binding agents used in paintings that can often confuse results.  I hope you all look forward to hearing more about it!


  1. Lindsay, I am extremely interested in your summer research – I’ve been interning in CW for the past year, with Archaeological Field Research and in the Department of Archaeological Collections. I met Shelly Svodoba at CW’s Antiques Forum this past spring and she was telling me about your work on The Portrait of Isaac Barre. Conservation fascinates me, and if I were better at chemistry I would consider a career in conservation. I’m really excited to read your blog this summer!