An Unusual Library With A Conservation Mission

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A short note here to link out to a story of interest because of its intersection of conservation, commerce and education. Thanks to this new (to us) source of interesting (to us) news:

The Harvard Library That Protects The World’s Rarest Colors

The most unusual colors from Harvard’s storied pigment library include beetle extracts, poisonous metals, and human mummies.

Today, every color imaginable is at your fingertips. You can peruse paint swatches at hardware stores, flip through Pantone books, and fuss with the color finder that comes with most computer programs, until achieving the hue of your heart’s desire. But rewind to a few centuries ago and finding that one specific color might have meant trekking to a single mineral deposit in remote Afghanistan—as was the case with lapis lazuli, a rock prized for its brilliant blue hue, which made it more valuable than gold in medieval times.

The history of pigments goes back to prehistoric times, but much of what we know about how they relate to the art world comes from Edward Forbes, a historian and director of the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University from 1909 to 1944. Considered the father of art conservation in the United States, Forbes traveled around the world amassing pigments in order to authenticate classical Italian paintings. Over the years, the Forbes Pigment Collection—as his collection came to be known—grew to more than 2,500 different specimens, each with its own layered backstory on its origin, production, and use.

Today, the collection is used mostly for scientific analysis, providing standard pigments to compare to unknowns. Narayan Khandekar is the director of the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies at the Harvard Art Museums and the collection’s custodian. For the last 10 years, Khandekar has rebuilt the collection to include modern pigments to better analyze 20th century and contemporary art.

A lot has changed in the art world since painters worked with “colormen”—as tradesmen in dyes and pigments were known—to obtain their medium. The commercialization of paints has transformed that process. “Artists today will use anything to get the idea that’s in their head into a physical form,” Khandekar says. “It could be pieces of plastic. It could be cans of food. It could be anything. We need to be able to identify lots of different materials that are industrially produced as well as things that are produced specifically for artists’ use.”…

Read the whole article here.

2 thoughts on “An Unusual Library With A Conservation Mission

  1. I don’t agree with cochineal beetle extracts. Even tho only insects, I still don’t support killing anything to support our ignorance and profit. Being vegetarian I’ve been reading labels for 20 years as it’s very important to avoid certain kinds of animal derived ingredients such as gelatin, carmine & others. To produce ‘carmine’ – hundreds of thousands of these insects are killed to obtain their red pigmented color for use in candies, processed foods & whatever else. Just because we’ve always done something, doesn’t mean it should continue or that it is right. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cochineal

  2. Interesting points! Thankfully, the Harvard Library makes no indication that cochineal production is still supported by them; rather, the pigments historically produced are documented for analysis and preservation purposes.

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