X-Radiography of Artifacts | Natural History Museum of Los Angeles

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Conservation/Collection Care

X-Radiography of Artifacts


Often, conservators need to look beneath the surface in order to understand an object. With the help of former Collections Manager, Jeff Siegel, conservators at the museum imaged the holy water font (a vessel which holds holy water for blessing oneself), shown above, using the Ichthyology Department's digital x-ray scanner.  

X-rays are a form of electromagnetic radiation (like visible light or microwaves). They are high energy beams that can pass through less dense materials, like our skin and flesh, and are absorbed by denser materials, like our bones. Similar to how doctors use x-rays to view bones, x-radiography is used by conservators to detect what we can't see with the naked eye: it may reveal previous breakage, repairs and internal armatures.

The holy water font is quite small, suggesting that it was probably intended to hang in a home for personal devotional use. It had clearly been damaged and repaired in the past; old damages included breaks, cracks, small losses and scratches. Additionally, the wings had been poorly mended so that they were out of alignment and the old glue had discolored over time. Plaster fills extended beyond areas of loss, covering areas of the original surface. The entire object was soiled with dark grime.


                        Before treatment. Note crack through proper left wing.

By x-raying the object, conservators hoped to understand whether the old repairs could be reversed without causing further damage. As you can see in the image on the left, the object has a number of internal wires and rods serving as supports - these appear as dark lines. The blue arrows indicate the location of old cracks and breaks. The wires span many of the previously repaired breaks as well as other cracks not otherwise visible, making the reversal of the repairs difficult without stressing the internal supports and the surrounding body.

The x-ray images helped conservators and curators make an informed decision about the treatment. The internal supports were located throughout the structure of the object and repaired joins were slightly out of alignment, but stable. Because of the number of supports, their length and location, the decision was made to leave the old repairs and reinforce them, rather than attempt to reverse them and risk damaging the font.

After cleaning the object and removing excess old adhesive, cracks were injected with a reversible adhesive. Voids were isolated with a reversible barrier layer and then filled with a reversible acrylic paste in order to improve the overall appearance of the font. Finally, losses were selectively filled based on structural need. By choosing stable and reversible materials, conservators have made it possible to easily remove the recent repairs if so desired in the future.             


                              Before treatment.                                 After treatment.