ARCHE: an International Joint Laboratory dedicated to Cultural Heritage analysis

The International Joint Laboratory (LIA), known as ARCHE (ARt and Cultural HEritage: Natural Organic Polymers by Mass Spectrometry) was officially launched in spring 2019.

  • 31/10/2019

At the signing ceremony of the LIA ARCHE: H. Jacquet (VP Strategy & Development of UBx), M. Hollein (Director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art), C. Tokarski (Professor at UBx), J. Arslanoglu (Researcher at the Department of Scientific Research, The Metropolitan Museum of Art), J. Maddaluno (Director of the CNRS Institute of Chemistry). 

This laboratory, which represents a French-American partnership (University of Bordeaux - CNRS - Bordeaux INP, France along with The Metropolitan Museum of Art, USA), is committed to pioneering research that advances and benefits the understanding of artworks and archaeological artifacts.

Long-standing collaborative research

The ARCHE project pursues and reinforces the long-term collaboration between Caroline Tokarski (Institute of Chemistry and Biology of Membranes and Nano-objects, Proteome Platform, Bordeaux) and Julie Arslanoglu (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Their work has resulted in the introduction of respectively “Proteomics” and “Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay” (ELISA) in the field of Cultural Heritage, thus allowing the accurate identification of proteins and their biological species, as well as the localization of targeted proteins within a sample. Their collaborative research aims  to develop new methodologies to study macromolecules (trace and ultra-trace levels); i.e. their origins, interactions, and degradation, for use in the science of conservation and preservation of works of art. These methodologies have been applied to a broad panel of artwork within The Met’s global collections (e.g. paintings, manuscripts, prints and drawings, photographs, sculptures, furniture, decorative arts, textiles) that represent 5,000 years of world history.

This international and interdisciplinary partnership uses novel developments in chemistry and analytical sciences to provide new insights into artworks. For example, for art material, this has implications on understanding how an artwork was created or how it has changed over time; improving conservation and preservation strategies; and addressing questions related to authentication. In archaeology, human habits and commercial exchanges from the past are revealed.

ARCHE: tackling the research challenges ahead

Since the introduction of the ELISA and Mass Spectrometry (MS)-based methodologies and their important contributions to the study of Cultural Heritage in terms of molecular identification, the next challenge in the field is now focused on a better comprehension of the organic material inside the sample (often a composite with inorganic materials and other organic materials) with considerations related to its environment (storage and display conditions), ageing, conservation treatments, etc. The ARCHE research project will therefore exploit the latest technical developments in immunology and mass spectrometry for the study of intact or transformed biomolecules found in cultural heritage material.

Research will concentrate on adapting the latest analytical methods, such as top down mass spectrometry or MS/antibody-based imaging, to reach the native, transformed or degraded forms of the targeted biomolecules for a better understanding of these materials in their environment. This brand new angle of analysis should allow access, by the unmodified structures, to information related to interactions, cross-linkings and chemical modifications. The analysis of native molecules should also allow the study of degradation mechanisms (aging, pollution of works of art, environmental impact on archaeological samples), the effect of conservation treatments or storage/ display conditions at a molecular scale.

This interdisciplinary laboratory, the first of its kind, will use unexplored developments in chemistry and analytical sciences in order to respond to current, artwork-related scientific issues.

Caroline Tokarski — Professor, University of Bordeaux

R&D developments based on MS analysis will be provided to answer the complex questions of cultural heritage samples in terms of identification, understanding of degradation mechanisms, impact of conservation treatments and conditions. The power and versatility of these new techniques are illustrated by the study of various exceptional artworks from MET collection and other institutions. Painted textiles and storage jars from ancient Egypt, African sculptures and Power Figures, Chimú feather work, Coptic manuscripts, and paintings spanning from the 14th to the 20th centuries will be a part of this unprecedented molecular "deep dive."

The ARCHE project will benefit from the strong and in-depth French-American partnership with the exceptional environment of The Met, the diversity of its scientific questions, the direct link with experts of other disciplines (conservators, art historians, archaeologists) and also with the scientists in Bordeaux in terms of expertise in analytical chemistry and instrumentation.