SAO PAULO, Brazil, April 2, 2017 (ENS) – Art conservationists and nuclear scientists have joined forces in Brazil to use nuclear technology in the preservation of more than 20,000 cultural artifacts.

“By merging these two worlds together, we are preserving our heritage and uncovering details about our past in a way we had never done before,” said Pablo Vasquez, researcher and manager of the multipurpose gamma irradiation facility at the Nuclear and Energy Research Institute, IPEN, in São Paulo.

“Radiation technology has become an essential part of our conservation process,” he said.

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More than 20,000 Brazilian art and cultural pieces have been preserved with nuclear radiation. (Screengrab from video courtesy IAEA)

The multi-disciplinary group at IPEN has worked with the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, for more than 15 years to use radiation techniques to treat, analyze and preserve cultural artifacts ranging from paintings, sculpture and books to old military paraphernalia and public document archives.

Among these are pieces from artists such as Anatol Wladyslaw and Wassily Kandinsky, as well as modern Brazilian painters such as Tarsila do Amaral, Anita Malfatti, Di Cavalcanti, Clóvis Graciano, Candido Portinari and Alfredo Volpi.

The team repurposed a IPEN irradiation facility that was originally used for sterilization of medical devices, so that it could use gamma irradiation on historical objects to disinfect them, fight mold and insect infestations, and help improve the durability of these artifacts.

This technique helps to protect artifacts from the effects of the country’s climate, Vasquez explains. “The problem in Brazil is the weather, the humidity, and natural disasters. We have a larger amount of fungi and termites than other countries do, and these can be destructive to books, paintings, wooden pieces, furniture, sculptures, and modern art.”

Using gamma radiation is a much less invasive way to disinfect pieces than using conventional methods, explains Sunil Sabharwal, a radiation processing specialist at the IAEA.

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Art conservationists analyze ancient printed materials. (Screengrab from video courtesy IAEA)

“Using gamma rays is a better alternative because it is done at room temperature using no additional substances, unlike conventional decontamination methods that often involve heat or chemicals that can alter material,” he said.

“We are better protecting the material without putting our hands on it,” Vasquez added.

Before treating a piece, the team analyzes it using nuclear and conventional techniques including radiography, X-ray fluorescence and X-ray diffraction.

This process uncovers details buried in the pieces, such as the kind of pigment or metals the artist used, helping the team identify the most appropriate preservation method.

The scientists used these analytical techniques to study a pre-Hispanic canvas from the collections of the Palace of the State Government of São Paulo. They took measurements that helped them determine the kind of paint the artist used and uncover details of how the piece of art had previously been restored.

And they found hidden drawings under the original painting.

Today the IPEN team’s experience is a main source of knowledge for many experts in the region and around the world, writes the IAEA’s Laura Gil.

In 2016, IPEN staff were involved in the first ever training course on this topic for Latin American experts. Organized by the IAEA, the course brought together conservators, restorers, museologists, librarians, curators and radiologists from 10 countries in the region to learn about the different applications of radiation technologies in cultural heritage.

IPEN now has a long list of requests for support. Its staffers work on objects from different countries and train foreign scientists and cultural experts.

An interesting project in the pipeline, said Vasquez, is the possibility of bringing three mummies from Ecuador that have been attacked by insects and fungi to the institute for treatment.

The IAEA is supporting this project with expertise and training.

“I am glad that experts and international organizations are placing more and more importance on preserving cultural heritage because our heritage is what represents the identity of our people,” Vasquez said. “We must continue to work to protect it.”

Applying nuclear solutions to industry, including the cultural industry, will be a key theme at the International Atomic Energy Agency Technical Cooperation Conference from May 30 to June 1 at IAEA headquarters in Vienna, Austria.

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