From the outside, the van is nondescript. It doesn’t even have a diagonal red stripe. But inside, a hard-traveling team of art conservators packs an arsenal of high tech gear: an atomic-force microscope, a micro-Raman spectroscope, a nuclear magnetic resonance relaxometer. They’re like the A-Team, only with black turtlenecks and Gauloises.
The mobile laboratory — aptly code-named MoLab — is tasked with protecting cultural treasures. Sponsored by the European Commission, it’s better equipped than the cash-strapped museums that now rely on MoLab for scientifically sound data on the chemical composition of priceless works of art. Ideally, knowing, say, what sort of resin Mark Rothko used or which pigments are in a medieval manuscript can help determine the best ways to preserve the objects. And those findings also help ease the tension between curators, whose main goal is to display works, and conservators, whose job is to guard them from the ravages of time. “The art community is very protective,” says Bruno Brunetti, the team’s scientific coordinator. “They do not want you to move them or take samples. But once we carry out the measurements, they are surprised how much information can be obtained.”
In five years on the road, MoLab has analyzed everything from a pre-Columbian Mixtec codex in the British Museum to expressionist paintings, such as Angst and Puberty, at the Munch Museum in Oslo. MoLab can even track an artist’s style and methods — in 2005, the team found a sketch for da Vinci’s The Last Supper under the surface of another one of his paintings at London’s National Gallery. Expect more discoveries in the future: The European Commission just greenlit MoLab to keep museum-hopping the continent for another four years.