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Restoring art and culture of the past -- with photonics

Photonics play a major part in restoration of the look of
a set of murals by Mark Rothko at Harvard University.
Ramesh Raskar, a computational photography expert at the MIT Media Lab, and two students used the idea of light projection in helping to develop a method for art conservation, writing software to isolate the images’ colors one pixel at a time and restore the look of a set of Rothko murals.

For the exhibition Mark Rothko’s Harvard Murals, showing through 26 July at the Harvard Art Museums, Raskar and his team worked with art historians, conservation scientists, and conservators to develop digital projection technology that restores the appearance of the murals’ original rich colors.

The artworks had faded while on display in the 1960s and ’70s in a penthouse dining room on the Harvard University campus, for which they were commissioned. Deemed unsuitable for exhibition, the murals entered storage in 1979 and since then had rarely been seen by the public.

The team compared images of the murals in the new gallery to the restored photograph of the original. The software creates a compensation image that is sent to a digital projector and illuminates the murals exactly as they would have looked over 50 years ago ― and the vividness of Rothko’s murals is revived.

The museum turns off the digital projector every day from 4 to 5 p.m. so visitors can see the differences in Rothko’s murals before and after the process.

The SPIE Optical Metrology symposium later this month in Munich includes a plenary talk by Raskar on extreme computational imaging, and also includes a conference on applications of optics and photonics in variety of conservation methods.

The conference, Optics for Arts, Architecture, and Archaeology, chaired by Luca Pezzati of the Istituto Nazionale di Ottica and Piotr Targowski of Nicolaus Copernicus University, will include reports from projects concerned with examining pre-colonial Brazilian ceramics, post-earthquake inspection of masonry underlying murals, underwater survey of marble works submerged for centuries, and other topics.

A few of the many photonics technologies employed are pulsed-phase and infrared thermography, photogrammetry, 2D and 3D modeling, and optical microtopography.

These projects and the Rothko mural restoration are beautiful examples of one of the primary themes of the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies: to highlight the myriad ways in which light has influenced and continues to influence human culture. Learn more about the United Nations-declared observance at www.spie.org/iyl.

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