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Image Gallery: How Tech Tools Are Saving Great Works Of Art

New labs at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center employ high- and low-tech tools from Microsoft Windows and Gmail, to specialized lighting, an electron microscope, and a room-sized X-ray machine.

The new Stone Hill Center at The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., is home of the Williamstown Art Conservation Center (WACC), the largest regional conservation center in the country.

Opened in June, 2008, the 32,000-square-foot structure houses two galleries in addition to lab space.

A vertical self-portrait by Whistler, discovered beneath a landscape by X-ray inspection. Photo by Matthew Hamilton
(click for image gallery)

While many of the tools used to restore and conserve paintings, objects, and paper-based materials have been used for ages -- brushes, blades, scrapers, and hammers -- digital tools are enhancing the work of conservators and restorers.

A visit to the WACC's new labs reveals that some tasks are still best done manually and painstakingly, such as mending tears, securing seams, and removing corrosion from the baseball gloves of Hall of Famers Hank Gowdy, Burleigh Grimes, James "Cool Papa" Bell, and Vivian Kellogg.

Other work is only possible because of the digital technology at the staff's disposal.

A room-sized X-ray machine can take multiple digital images which can be composited in Photoshop and printed as a single image. The results may be used to determine attribution of multiple works to a single artist.

Or they may reveal hidden layers below a painting's surface, such as the example shown here.

Specialized lighting techniques such as infrared can reveal underdrawings made by the artist before paint was applied. Examination of a painting under UV light can highlight the condition of varnishes and resins applied in previous restoration efforts.

In part because of the expense involved, only one in 50 to 70 paintings processed by the WACC is X-rayed.

Even as they deploy digital technologies, conservators are struggling for archiving solutions.

To see photos of how technology is being used at the WACC, click here.

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