Conserving Art, One Nano-Inch at a Time

Winter 2007

Brigid O’Brien
A painstaking process: Brigid O’Brien at work in Boston’s Trinity Church.

For nine months in 2004 and 2005, Brigid O’Brien began each day by climbing 100 feet of stairs and scaffolding. The essential tools of her trade were a handful of Q-tips, various bottles of cleaning agents, and her own spit.

It doesn’t sound like typical work for an engineer, but then, O’Brien isn’t your typical engineer. Currently a graduate student in the Whiting School’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, O’Brien took a year off from her graduate work to pursue what she describes as, “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” It came in the form of a job offer to help clean and conserve the 130-year-old La Farge murals in Boston’s Trinity Church.

Originally painted in a little more than four months, the murals span two interior tiers of the church’s central tower. The immense biblical figures, bold red background, and shimmering bands of gilt text include a variety of encaustic, oil, and distemper paints. “It’s one of the reasons chemistry is so important in conservation,” O’Brien comments. “Such mixed media is difficult to clean.”

And because of that the work was slowgoing. She tested small patches as she went, constantly adjusting the Ph of her various cleaning agents. Then, after dipping her Q-tips in various neutral solutions and chelating agents, O’Brien gently rolled over the surface of paint, inch by inch, to lift off layers of soot and dirt. A day’s work usually concluded with a few feet of partially cleaned mural and a coffee can full of dirty Q-tips.

“I cleaned one 13-by-5-foot mural purely by spit. I was there for hours, days, weeks!” she says, explaining that, unlikely as it may seem, human spit contains enzymes and compounds that effectively break down dirt on paint that is extremely soluble.

“Art conservation is a nice bridge between my two passions: science and art,” says O’Brien, who earned her undergraduate degree in chemistry, with a concentration in art history, from the University of Massachusetts. She later interned at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., compiling databases of artists’ materials found within the museum. Currently, she volunteers at the Baltimore Museum of Art, analyzing and cataloging donated art.

In her current graduate work at the Whiting School, O’Brien is using self-assembled monolayers that she stamps onto the surfaces of metals such as gold and silver—a technique she’s combining with electrodeposition processes to fabricate nanostructures. Through this combination of engineering and science, O’Brien is aiming to better understand surface science and electrochemistry—knowledge that can be applied to all aspects of art conservation.