It was a mystery. Murals painted by 20th century abstract expressionist Mark Rothko had only been hanging on the walls for 10 years — and already their signature crimson red had turned to denim blue.
The work of the Art Conservation Research Center at Carnegie Mellon is aimed at preventing such tragedies in the modern art world.
One innovation developed by the center's director, Paul Whitmore, a research professor of chemistry, is being used by museums around the world. Called a micro-fading tester, the instrument uncovers critical information about the stability of an artifact — leading to a diagnosis on how best to provide long-term care.
"These artifacts are patients who need care. They need diagnoses for their problems, cures for what ails them and healthy lifestyles to prolong their existence," Whitmore explained.
Curators like the micro-fading tester because it's simple for a lay person to use. It enables them to quickly and easily determine whether an art piece has intrinsic chemical components that will age rapidly. And it can be used on many types of collections — from paintings to butterfly wings to colored bird feathers woven into headdresses.
"It works by applying very intense white light to a very small spot and recording the changes in the color of the reflected light," Whitmore said. "If a color is unstable, the machine displays a color change right in front of you. To make it even easier, there is a numerical value associated with the colors. So, if you see that the number starts creeping up, then you know you're fading the color with the light."
While Whitmore considers his chemistry education to be the "pre-med" that has prepared him for this kind of work, he says knowing what the art piece is made of is not as important as one might think.
"You don't always need to know all the details about what you have, just how to take care of it," Whitmore said.
Staff scientist Chong Tao came to Carnegie Mellon because of the center. He says he's always been interested in using technology to serve some practical purpose.
"This center is unique because we emphasize how to preserve art rather than wanting to know the science behind the conservation," Tao said.
Whitmore has been director at the center for 17 years. Why does he do it?
"Keeping beautiful art in the world drives me every day," he said. "I feel it's a worthwhile thing to do with your life. I know I've helped save some things — and I feel good about having given someone else the tools to do the same."