Posted in biology, chemistry, design and architecture, museum

Microbes for Michelangelo

Traditionally bacteria and art have been seen as a bad combination, potentially destroying irreplacable artifacts and paintings. Mold, fungus, and insects can also be detrimental, especially in tropical climates. However, these little powerhouses with a one-track mind can also be used for art conservation and preservation.

Art conservationists, curators and scientists gathered last week in Caracas, Venezuela at the Forum on Cultural Heritage Conservation, to discuss the potential contributions of microorganisms in the art world. These abilities range from detecting whether a gallery’s air quality might be harmful to delicate to art, to fixing cracks in marble statues, to actually cleaning a dirty piece with helpful bacteria.

Sponsored by the U.N. and the Cultural Heritage Conservation Foundation, the event gathered over 200 participants and speakers from 30 different countries.

“Giancarlo Ranalli, an Italian researcher in Pesche, Italy, and a presenter at the forum, has already used bacteria to clean the base of Michelangelo’s Pietà Rondanini in Milan and another kind of bacteria to remove harmful animal glue from frescos in Pisa. Ramirez also describes the use of forensic DNA techniques to identify burrowing insects in wooden pieces from just minuscule droppings or a tiny body part so that the precise species can be identified and properly eradicated as well as the use of a process called biomineralization in which microbes, introduced to a crack in a stone sculpture, will deposit a calcium carbonate that picks up the color of the original while filling the gap.”



Beth Kelley is an applied & digital anthropologist with an overall interest in how people engage with and are impacted by their environments and vice versa. This has manifested itself in many ways, by looking at creativity, playful spaces, built environments, and environmental enrichment, sustainability, design research, and integrative and collaborative models of learning such as through play and hands-on learning.