The cavernous halls and exhibition spaces of the Metropolitan Museum of Art were empty and silent when a small group of people entered the Egyptian Wing with a 500-pound science apparatus on a cart. They opened the case surrounding one of the mummies, turned on the device, and stuck a probe near the 3,000-year-old cat.
Scientists were there to learn more about the air in enclosures, and at the Met in general. A day earlier this year, a team from Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences and the world-famous art museum walked through halls and exhibition spaces, measuring what compounds were in the air and in what quantities.
“The question the Met was asking is, do the crates that contain these priceless collections of 18th century British ceramic mummies release compounds that could somehow damage these collections?” said John Mak, professor at SoMAS. “We took our instrument to the Met when it was closed to the public and spent the whole day collecting samples in different galleries and rooms.”
The display cases that contain the Met’s priceless art and artifacts are, of course, designed to protect the art from visitors who might otherwise be unable to resist the temptation to touch or get too close. But they are much more than plexiglass and glue; the housings themselves are carefully designed so as not to emit gases liable to react and adversely affect art.
âWe always try to verify the manufacturer’s materials before installing the enclosures, but we always want to know if the enclosure is gassing. If it is a gas evolution, what chemicals are given off and are they harmful to the art? Said Eric Breitung, a physical organic chemist who heads the Met’s preventive conservation science lab. âMy job is to make sure that these materials don’t harm art and that they don’t degrade art prematurely. “
Degassing, also called degassing, is a natural process. This happens whenever a material or compound changes and emits an odor or volatile chemical that may or may not be harmful in itself. The off-gas is the reason new cars have this distinctive smell, given off by the various plastics, foams and other materials used in the construction of the car. This is also why scents and pine forests give off their own distinctive aromas.
The team of scientists at the Met wanted to know if some of their new cases were gassing or not, so they turned to Mak for help. Mak is one of the few researchers in the Northeast to own a proton transfer reaction mass spectrometer, an instrument capable of collecting real-time measurements of airborne organic molecules.
Earlier this year, Mak and two of his graduate students, Cong Cao and Julia Marcantonio, at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences; and Roisin Commane, assistant professor of earth and environmental sciences at Columbia University, spent the day scouring the Met taking measurements in shop windows and in public spaces. They concentrated most of their time in the Egyptian wing, as well as in the storage and exhibition areas of the 18th and 19th century ceramics and silverware collections.
The Met is one of the few museums in the United States to employ chemists and other scientists to help preserve and protect their collections. The idea, says Breitung, is to implement large-scale practices to help offload some of the Conservatives’ laborious efforts.
âConservators work one piece at a time and it can take years. We have wonderful conservators at the Met and they do an amazing job, but the less things they have to interact with, the better for the artwork, âsaid Breitung. “Anytime you handle or have to do something with the art, you run the risk of hurting it and you also intervene with the original object, which is never ideal.”
It will likely take Mak and his team several months to analyze the data and understand what goes on in the cases and halls of the Met when no one is around. From there, Mak says he would like to return to the Met to take measurements when the building is open to visitors, to compare the data.
âWe can measure dozens of compounds down to parts per billion or less. The next step is to figure out what we’re looking at. There are specific classes of compounds that are of interest, such as acids, alcohols and aromatics. We should be able to quantify certain species in each class. If our observations are helpful, they would be interested in seeing us again, âMak said.
Mak has spent his career studying air quality and seeking to broaden humanity’s understanding of how airborne compounds and materials interact with each other, and the impact of these reactions to people and the environment. As interested in science as he is, he said walking through the empty halls of one of the world’s greatest museums was one of the most memorable moments of his life.
âI’m just glad they contacted us. When I was a child, I studied all of these ancient civilizations. Being able to look at these collections with no one there, not being rushed by crowds or distracted by voices, was amazing, âsaid Mak. âI camped at the South Pole. I flew my single engine plane in Honduras and Nicauragua. Going to the Met when it’s empty, it’s right up there.