Francesca Casadio is executive director of conservation and science at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Coronavirus-related closures currently facing museums may be temporary, but the virus’s impacts on artworks are sure to be permanent. While museums are determining the best ways to disinfect galleries, art conservators are looking for safe methods to keep masterpieces clean of the virus and of sanitizing chemicals alike, leaving many to wonder (and worry) about the possible impact of disinfecting solutions on innumerable art objects. Without a science-based approach, could the new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) forever change the composition of the artworks we love the most? Almost certainly, in ways both seen and unseen.
I am a scientist, and my patients are works of art. In March, on my last day of work on site at the Art Institute of Chicago, I found myself asking: How can I keep the works in my care healthy while making people feel safe? Poring over the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of recommended antimicrobial products for disinfecting surfaces, I searched for something that would make the art environment safe for humans while also not causing irreparable harm to the art. From the beginning of the Art Institute’s closure, we were preparing for the day when the museum would be open again, which will surely be a transformed space as gallery attendants will be clad in personal protective equipment frequently sanitizing door handles, railings, bathrooms, benches, and other high-touch areas.
Frankly, the task felt like the proverbial needle in a haystack. The most common ingredients in disinfectants are bleaching and oxidizing products that will cause permanent damage to many art objects. Alcohol-based disinfectants can be used in low concentrations on wipes around—though never on—artworks, yet these were already out of stock. After crossing out more than 80 items, I caught sight of a product based on Thymol, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
Contained in many cleaning products marketed to consumers as being ecofriendly, Thymol is an essential oil that is found in many plants of the family of thyme, a Mediterranean herb that I have in my pantry and also turns out to have potent antimicrobial and antiviral activity. A quick assessment of its chemical formula led me to conclude that, if some droplets of Thymol were accidentally deposited on works of art as part of a disinfecting operation in our galleries to keep people safe, the artworks wouldn’t be negatively impacted.
Suddenly, I was faced with a bizarre quandary: What will museum scientists think, 100 years from now, when they find Thymol, acting as a fingerprint from the coronavirus era, on the greatest artworks of the past few centuries? I thought of Archibald Motley’s Nightlife (1943), a vibrant depiction of a crowded cabaret in the South Side of Chicago. I thought of how Motley’s subject matter was something we were unlikely to experience for a while, thanks to social distancing, and of how the chemical composition of his canvas could be forever transformed by the Thymol I could use in the gallery where it hangs, to keep it safe.
I doubt many museum visitors share my concerns. There’s no question that this global pandemic is raising public consciousness about the importance of science, as antibody testing, epidemiological models, and the global search for a vaccine seemingly dominate our virtual conversations, morning through night. This is of interest to us all because something invisible is threatening humanity. But we need to start considering how something invisible, like the virus, can impact art, too.
Art and illness have an intimate relationship. Consider Vincent van Gogh’s The Bedroom (1889), an image of self-isolation that feels relatable in this age of coronavirus. Van Gogh painted the work while he was recovering from nervous exhaustion in Arles, but the artwork’s relationship to sickness doesn’t end there—it harbors a disease in its own layers of paint. Below the surface of The Bedroom, thousands of chemical reactions are taking place every day, and like a virus, they are spreading and multiplying over the canvas, ultimately creating a plague of microscopic paint losses and pustules.
Years ago, we took minuscule paint samples from this iconic work in our collection, embedded them in a clear resin, and cut through the resin like a layer cake. When the images are magnified thousands of times, we saw round, dandelion-like structures that evoke the widely reproduced images of another virus we are now all painfully familiar with. Museum scientists are working with conservators to find a cure for The Bedroom’s affliction. (Fortunately, this disease is not quite as deadly as the one that is ravaging our planet, if only slightly disfiguring.)
Van Gogh’s Bedroom will continue to fascinate, move, and inspire generations of visitors in the centuries to come, many of whom won’t see the disease taking place underneath the painting’s surface that we are trying to preserve. But I won’t soon forget the pustules and paint losses because, in my lab at the museum, we often bring the invisible to a scale that is comprehensible to humans through scientific imaging. Every day, I wonder how to expand my imagination to help face questions like: What if we used a plant-based formula to clean around artworks to make our spaces safe for people to return? What might conservators 100 years from now glean when these compounds become an integral part of the works’ chemical composition?
Careful preparations behind the scenes help make that possible: soon enough, museums will be sanitized havens to collectively heal, understand our place in history, and learn to share public spaces again.