Saturday, April 18, 2009

Heritage and science

April 18 is the International Day for Monuments and Sites. This year’s theme is “Heritage and Science.” Two major streams to the theme are: The role that science (and the scientific process) has played in the creation of heritage, and the contribution that science (and technology) offers to the study of heritage.

I’m fascinated by how science and technology have made it possible for us to continue using our colonial churches hundreds of years after they were built. We must have had skilled builders and artisans in those times. I marvel at how these buildings managed to survive earthquakes when more contemporary structures did not.

Science and technology also make it possible for generations after us to enjoy these colonial churches. Sophisticated techniques like lasers are used to explore and examine structures to determine how they could be best repaired and restored. Unfortunately, the same technology inspires others and makes it possible for them to “beautify” and “modernize” structures without thought to their heritage value. There are a lot in my cringe list and I have not been to all the colonial churches in the country.

At the Jorge B. Vargas Museum and Filipiniana Research Center in UP Diliman, an exhibit called “Art Beyond Appearances: Caring for Amorsolo’s Legacy” illustrates how science can be used for heritage preservation. The exhibit is a collaboration of the Vargas Museum, the UP National Institute of Physics, and the UP Electrical and Electronics Engineering Institute.

Jorge Vargas was one of Amorsolo’s constant patrons. The Vargas Museum has fifty-eight works by Amorsolo in its collection. Selected portraits of women whom Amorsolo painted in the 1940’s were studied by a team of engineers and physicists to determine their properties. The team investigated the color choices and brush strokes of Amorsolo and compared them to his contemporaries. The findings could be used to authenticate works by Amorsolo.

This is important as the high demand for Amorsolo’s works locally and abroad has led to his becoming one of the most forged artists in the country. There is currently no national authentication board and private authenticators rely on visual analysis, familiarity with his work, and research and interviews with Amorsolo’s heirs to determine if an artwork is authentic or not.

Another aspect of the study on exhibit is digital archiving. This was done to capture not only the colors of the painting but also its texture. This is crucial for preservation as it can detect damage such as cracking of paint layers and warping of canvas.

Wireless sensor nodes to measure fluctuations in temperature and humidity were also installed in the main gallery of the museum to determine optimum levels to maintain the protective environment for artworks. This would help establish standards more suited for tropical climates as the standards in use are based mostly on conditions in North America or Europe.

The exhibit made me feel like a grade school student on a field trip to a science fair. Physics is not my favorite subject but I now appreciate its applications to art and daily life more. I’m also relearning how to paint and it was interesting to find out what colors Amorsolo and his contemporaries mixed to capture the color of the faces and the brushstrokes that they used for different effects. I think that the combination was black, white, red, and dark ochre. I’ve been reciting the color combination like a mantra with the hope of one day being able to replicate the impressionist effect in my paintings. Dreams are free, after all. (Kay Malilong-Isberto, The Freeman, April 14, 2009)

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