Top-notch science and advanced technologies from UP save unique works of art

Jana Michalčáková and Karel Lemr debating the analysis of materials from historical artworks.
Photo: Milada Hronová
tuesday 10. april 2018, 9:32 – Text: Milada Hronová

A one-of-its-kind method of research and protection of cultural and artistic heritage has been developed by Palacký University scientists. Thanks to the Arteca project, interconnecting art historians, chemists, and physicists, scientists will be able to help with analysis and protection of precious artworks.

The Arteca project, whose partners are the Czech National Heritage Institute and the Olomouc Museum of Art, brings together experts specialising in the theory of historic preservation at the Department of Art History at the UP Faculty of Arts and experts in physical-chemical research at the Regional Centre of Advanced Technologies and Materials (RCPTM) at the UP Faculty of Sciences. Their goal is to develop new scientific methods and procedures in the protection and restoration of cultural heritage items, which could be later applied in practice.

Thanks to Arteca, a 30-member team will be established at UP. “The development of new methods and techniques for research into cultural and artistic heritage in Europe has been marked with great progress, and we cannot fall behind in the Czech Republic,” said the leader of the research team, Jana Michalčáková from the Department of Art History. The potential of Arteca goes beyond scientific research – its results will be used in practice. Not only companies and institutions closely specialised in heritage protection, but also industries such as the construction industry will be able to use their methods.

Arteca will form a more solid basis for the existing, years-long collaboration between the natural scientists from RCPTM and art historians, which has been rather a matter of relatively isolated tasks until now. “Our mission is to provide analyses of materials used in historic works, which will help art historians to put them into a certain context. This is how they will obtain vital information on the artwork itself, or findings important for its restoration or reconstruction. There are a number of physical-chemical methods that could be used for exploration of those works,” said Karel Lemr from RCPTM. Since the artworks are historically very valuable, according to Lemr it is necessary to conduct the analyses in such a way that the work itself would not be damaged. In addition to convenient applications of existing methods, analytical chemists and optical scientists will also develop new procedures. For instance, they plan to use the multimodal monitoring of samples, which has been used rather for biological materials.

“We will develop methods that will bring together several analytical techniques, allowing us to acquire more complex information about the sample,” added the chemist Karel Lemr. The Arteca project, thanks to which RCPTM experts will obtain also a special mass spectrometer for analysis of solid samples, could become a platform for the establishment of a new research discipline at Palacký University.

“The RCPTM optical scientists will analyse the artworks by means of colour analysis and modern spectrometry, today used mainly in quantum and non-linear optics. Like the chemists, they expect to learn many a new thing,” said RCPTM Scientific Director, Ondřej Haderka.

Thanks to the research methods based in the natural sciences, art historians will be enabled to become more deeply acquainted with the investigated works. According to Jana Michalčáková, they will no longer study their content only, but also the material aspects. They will clarify, for example, what material is the studied artwork made out of, what kinds of paint were available to the artist, and what is the origin of pigments used in the creation. “All these findings, with the use of state-of-the-art technologies, will reveal to us the artistic technical procedures of those times. We’ll also improve the maintenance of our historic sights and artworks thanks to the new findings,” added Michalčáková.

The activities of the new scientific team will also be reflected in the academic environment. The changes in the specialisation of the Department of Art History have been announced by the department’s Head, Jana Zapletalová. “In the next months, we will extend our curriculum with courses that will introduce the new possibilities consisting in the application of the natural sciences and research within art history research. Foreign experts visit us every year, and their research activities will now include lectures for our students. We have been preparing a new doctoral study programme Technology for Arts, which will be started in the academic year 2021/2022. The goal of this programme will be to raise a new generation of outstanding, multidisciplinary-oriented art historians with extension into the natural sciences,” explained Jana Zapletalová.

“The interconnection of several disciplines and workplaces will give us a completely new perspective on the protection of cultural heritage. It is the first project of its kind in the Czech Republic when highly advanced chemical-physical analysis should help in our understanding of art. The project has been prepared for many years at the university. We are very pleased that Arteca was selected this year as one of the projects supported by the Operational Programme ‘Research, Development and Education’. We have received almost 2.4 million euro, which sheds some light on how prestigious this entire activity is,” said Dana Bilíková, UP Faculty of Arts Vice-Dean. According to Bilíková, this project is an unprecedented example of close collaboration between the humanities and the natural sciences.

The project is funded by the Operational Programme “Research, Development and Education – Pre-Application Research for Integrated Territorial Investment”, the goal of which is to contribute to the development of Olomouc’s conurbation.