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Tag Archives: research

The fascinating world of letter locking

‘Letter-locking’ is a term coined by MIT conservator Jana Dambrogio, to refer to the techniques used to fold and seal shut letters. She has been investigating many different techniques by which this could be accomplished, ranging from the mainly decorative to the highly secure – so that the receiver could tell instantly if the letter had been tampered with. She has a series of videos on YouTube showing the various methods by which a letter could be locked, supplemented with detailed images on her website, and also this great blog post from the Folger which reminds us of the importance of making models if we want to understand a structure more fully. Currently she is conducting further research with Dr. Daniel Smith of Lincoln College, University of Oxford. Suddenly all those folds, creases and curious slits in the sides of old letters start to make sense…

The role of computer technology in analysing art

Whilst working at the Chester Beatty Library with the astonishing Ruzbihan Qur’an, I spent some time wondering whether there were ways in which computers could assist with our analysis of the manuscript. Some things I wanted to find out seemed almost within reach, and certainly could be done manually, such as checking to see whether the jadval (frame lines) were all exactly the same dimensions on each page. A minor thing, but it might help us to understand whether the same mistara (ruling device – see here for some very clear examples) was used throughout. Equally, I wanted to compare other divisions of the layout on each page – the size of the onvan heading panels, and the size and position of the decorative side panels. Any anomalies might help us to understand if different quires were worked on by different people, or using different tools, or maybe just at different times. However, I’m limited by my own knowledge and skills when it comes to this kind of analysis – I can manually take measurements of each page but the book is over 800 pages long, so it would certainly be laborious, and then I would have to pick out of the measurements those which matched and those which differed. I’m fairly competent in Excel so could find a way to do this, but I felt sure there must be easier ways…

…And of course there are, and already some exciting methods are being exploited to interesting ends in the fields of art history, bibliography, and codicology. Since I began thinking about this many examples have crossed my path, including a paper given at TIMA last year by PhD student Alex Brey, who used the statistical programming language R to look for variations within certain elements of a Seljuk Qur’an: for example, to find differences between the verse markers, which may help to identify the presence of different hands. His research aims to find out exactly the things which most intrigue me about Islamic manuscript workshops – how many people may have been involved with producing a manuscript; how tasks were divided up within the studio; and how (or, indeed whether) a consistent design aesthetic was achieved when undoubtedly more than one artist was involved. Alex’s blog also delves into other areas where technology interacts with art history. This post is a very interesting discussion on whether computer vision algorithms can effectively look for compositional similarities in paintings (and indeed, what benefits exist from training computers to do this).

Image matching software is another area of interest for art historians and scholars, and already has some very exciting applications.  This Ukiyo-e Search website looks for similar prints across multiple online collections, meaning that comparing impressions, colours (and fading) and so on of the same print is exceptionally fast and easy. You can also upload your own photo of a print, and search to find matches. The Broadside Ballads Online from the Bodleian Libraries has a similar function called ‘Image Search’- you can clip an area from one of the digitised ballads, and search to see where else it appears. As woodblocks for these ballads were used over and over again, by gathering together all the similar images we can also start to see how the woodblocks age as wormholes and cracks appear as white gaps in the printed image. There are a couple of very good images of this in this blog post: Of ballads and worms.  The degradation of woodblocks can be instrumental when it comes to dating and analysing print impressions: here is an excellent poster from the University of Oxford Department of Engineering Science’s Visual Geometry Group which demonstrates this, and the role computer aided image-match technology can play in understanding the order in which prints were made. In fact, if you don’t follow any of the other links in this post I would still recommend you look at this one!

Visible Conservation, and an Islamic Art Lecture

Whenever conservators come out from their studios and into gallery spaces the public are invariably fascinated and keen to engage with us and our slightly hidden area of work. The British Museum’s Conservation in Focus project involved setting up a temporary studio in one of the galleries so that visitors could see conservation treatments taking place and ask questions of the conservators. Whenever I visited during this exhibition, the gallery was always busy and visitors took a great interest in conservation treatments. Fine art exhibitions are starting to reflect this area of interest by including science and conservation details in the text used on interpretation panels and the materials they provide as part of the exhibition: a recent example is the Tate’s Rothko exhibition which included conservation light-boxes to display the findings of research into Rothko’s technique and materials. There is an evaluation of how visitors reacted to this information here , and this quote tells us a lot about how much this kind of in-exhibition resource is valued:

The new insights provided in this room were generally greatly appreciated, with many visitors reporting that this section changed their viewing habits in later rooms. The majority of visitors we spoke to would like similar resources in future exhibitions. Even those who were not interested in conservation were still glad that the information was available for others. Visitors tended to be surprised by this section and were not expecting this kind of content in the Rothko exhibition.

A current exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art similarly uses the research and findings of conservators to inform their exhibition Making the Invisible Visible: Conservation and Islamic Art (ends August 4th). A variety of events have run alongside this exhibition, including several lectures and discussions which have  generously been made available on the website. Most of all, I would like to direct your attention to this Arts of the Book Lecture, given by Associate Conservator Yana van Dyke who is a leading expert in the field of conservation of Islamic art on paper.