Research is a cornerstone of conservation practice and innovation at the NGV. Prior to treatments, conservators closely examine art objects to better understand their material composition, fabrication, degradation issues, damages and previous restorations. Conservators use a variety of scientific tools and methods to reveal hidden aspects about works of art and how they are made. Technical research also involves investigating an artist’s materials and techniques, as well as historical developments of traditional and non-traditional materials used in art. Building technical knowledge of the NGV’s diverse collection is important for developing our strategies for the long-term care, treatment and display of works.
The NGV has long applied traditional technical examination techniques to various works of art, including x-radiography, infrared, ultraviolet light and spectral imaging, to observe features not visible to the naked eye. With these diagnostic methods, information is gleaned about surface coatings and underdrawings, structural elements and internal supports, as well as previous alterations and repairs. These methods are often coupled with photography or other imaging technologies, such as Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI), to document cultural objects and their physical change accurately and reliably.
Instrumental analytical techniques can also be used to identify chemical and physical properties, such as pigments, resins and binders present in an object. The Conservation department frequently employs two common techniques, X-ray fluorescence (XRF) and infrared (IR) spectroscopy, to investigate the elemental and molecular structures of materials. Ethical considerations are fundamental to conservation which means that scientific research involves careful decision-making particularly with sampling and testing. Non-invasive and non-destructive approaches are always prioritised and preferred by conservators.
Explore examples of works in the NGV Collection that have undergone technical examination
X-radiography uses x-rays (x-radiation) to reveal details of an object’s structure and composition. The degree in which X-rays penetrate through different materials is visually represented in an x-radiograph. This example of an x-radiograph was taken of a Persian dish from the 12th century. It immediately shows the numerous pieces that have been adhered together to reassemble the plate. The lighter sections are infills where missing pieces have been recreated.
Under ultraviolet (UV) light many organic materials on the surface of an artwork exhibit varying degrees of UV fluorescence. Varnishes, some paint media and pigments, and various restorations can fluorescence different colours which helps with identifying the material. The image of Hans Heysen’s Sunshine and shadows, 1904-05, is under UV light. The varnish has been partially removed and the remaining varnish on the left half of the painting is visibly fluorescing a characteristic greenish yellow, indicating a natural resin varnish such as mastic and dammar.
REFLECTANCE TRANSFORMATION IMAGING
Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) is a photographic method where an object is documented multiple times with light falling onto its surface at different angles. When compiled together using RTI computer software, an interactive image is produced that allows close surface examination. This example of a RTI image is of a print by Japanese artist, Totoya Hokkei, depicting a woman making miniature landscape. With RTI, any undulations and creases in the paper become apparent as well as the decorative blind embossing technique known as karazuri in Japan.
The Conservation department is continuously researching and discovering new information about works held in the NGV Collection. Current research projects are varied and wide-ranging, and include explorations into the materials and techniques of living artists and varnishes used by Australian painters, material surveys of bark paintings and plastics in the collection, and the histories of picture frames investigated through the NGV Centre for Frame Research.
The department shares research findings through print and online publishing, as well as various outreach activities and online resources for study and interest.
Explore a selection of our research activities online
Conservation research is a collaborative and interdisciplinary endeavour which involves conservators working closely with scientists, curators and art historians, as well as engaging in a global community of professional colleagues. Establishing collaborations and partnerships with other research institutions is vital to realising our many research projects and goals. Our most recent collaboration with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and chemical manufacturer, Boron Molecular, resulted in a major contribution to the conservation field through the development of a new generation museum-grade picture varnish called MS3. Other important project partners and collaborators include Australian Synchrotron, Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Materials, National Portrait Gallery, London, Getty Conservation Institute, Los Angeles, and Tokyo National Research Institute for Cultural Properties.
Our research is shared far and wide through publishing and presentations for specialist and general audiences. Many essays are available online.