Cultural Heritage Imaging

Interview: James Coddington, Chief Conservator, Museum of Modern Art, New York

CHI Executive Director Debra Dooley recently conducted an email interview with James (Jim) Coddington (JC), Chief Conservator at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. CHI is building a custom light array for MoMA’a Conservation Department to help with capturing reflectance transformation imaging (RTI) media of objects in the museum’s collection.

1. How long have you been at the MoMA?

JC: 23 years

2. As Chief Conservator at MoMA, are you constantly searching for new techniques to preserve and restore art?

JC: It is a necessity when conserving contemporary art in particular.

3. What are you doing to digitally document, analyze, and preserve the MoMA collection at present?

JC: We are using standard RGB imaging as well as multi-spectral imaging via a spectral estimation technique using a standard RGB camera with filters. We also maintain written digital documentation of treatments and other reporting.

4. Why have you decided to expand from what you are doing now into reflectance transformation imaging (RTI) techniques?

JC: The importance of 3D information in documenting works of art has been long recognized, mostly in the form of raking light photos. RTI gives us the means to collect substantially more 3D information in a standardized way that also provides data for scientific analysis of surface structure and topography.

4. Why did RTI interest you?

JC: I think mostly the demonstrated ease of use.

5. How will you use RTI?

JC: We will be using it initially to document texture on printed out photo papers but we expect to use it on many different types of objects in our collection.

6. A custom light array is being built for the MoMA. What objects will you capture first?

JC: See Answer #5.

Imaging Paper Squeezes With RTI at the Smithsonian

By Guest Blogger E. Keats Webb

I mentioned briefly last month some of the objects that we have been using Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) on here at the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute (MCI).  One project involved paper “squeezes,” paper pulp molds made from the surfaces of ancient monuments at archaeological sites.

In some cases these “squeezes” are primary resources containing rare intellectual and physical information from monuments that have deteriorated or sites that no longer exist.  Unfortunately, the fragility of the paper minimizes accessibility of these objects to researchers and scholars. This makes them great candidates for non-destructive documentation of the 3-D characteristics of their surfaces with the RTI method.

Senior Conservator, Melvin Wachowiak, and I worked with the conservators from a Smithsonian museum, imaging a couple of examples of paper squeezes to see what the RTI method might contribute in terms of preservation and research.

Since the squeezes are molds taken from stone inscriptions, the writing is reversed.  After the image acquisition we “flipped” the images using imaging software, and then processed the files so that the final RTI product could be a legible rectified document for researchers to study.

We found that the RTI method increases legibility through the combination of raking light features and the specular enhancement option while also creating a surrogate that can be more extensively “handled” by researchers and scholars. (See images below.)

We continue to use RTI on a daily basis and look forward to sharing more with you about how the method is helping the scientists and conservators within MCI and the Smithsonian for the research and preservation of the collections.


Detail of Paper Squeeze with Normal Light Position


Paper with raking light

Detail of Paper Squeeze with Raking Light


Paper with specular enhancement

Detail of Paper Squeeze with Specular Enhancement

What CHI Means to Me
December 2, 2009, 11:12 pm
Filed under: Commentary, News, Technology

By Judy Bogart, Technical Writer

NOTE: Judy Bogart has been a CHI donor for several years and now donates her time and skills to help CHI create great training materials. In this blog, she shares what CHI means to her.

As an old friend and colleague of Carla’s, I have been following the  progress of CHI since it was a gleam in her eye, and have watched it grow into a well-established and well-respected enterprise with a real opportunity to make lasting changes in how cultural artifacts are documented and preserved in the 21st century.

I find the technology fascinating, with endless possibilities. It is a pleasure to be able to contribute my skills to make this technology more accessible to the people who need it. This is what I do professionally for commercial software, and being able to do it for something with real, demonstrable moral value and social benefit makes me very happy!

Wanted: Heritage Heroes

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) declares World Environment Day each June, making this month a time to focus on how we can improve our environment and our planet.

Our global cultural heritage is a vital element of our environment. Like our natural and physical world, heritage sites and artifacts have been adversely affected by climate change and other negative environmental effects, many caused by human activities.

UNEP has created the Champions of the Earth Laureates Program to recognize the extraordinary efforts made by dedicated researchers and activists to increase environmental protection and awareness.

CHI has been inspired by the UNEP program to create a Heritage Heroes initiative that appreciates people in the heritage community who have advanced the field in so many ways. UNEP recognition categories include science and innovation, policy, inspiration and action, and entrepreneurial vision.

The CHI team can think of numerous cultural heritage workers who deserve recognition in each of these areas and in other categories, too.

However, for our first nominee, we have selected someone who has really led the way in promoting digital techniques to document and preserve cultural heritage.

Tom Malzbender, senior research scientist at Hewlett Packard Labs, has helped the field of digital cultural heritage by developing, refining, and sharing  advanced imaging techniques and other processes to digitally document and preserve artifacts.

Listen to him describe interactive relighting in a post on this blog. We hope you agree that he is a heritage hero! Let us know about your heritage heroes by posting comments in our blog.

We are interested in all kinds of heroes — not only those who excel in technology, but also those who inspire others to action — historic preservation advocates, fieldwork fiends, educators, and those working in other relevant fields.

Preserving Places & Objects That Matter
June 2, 2009, 8:29 pm
Filed under: News | Tags: , ,

By Claudia Willen

Please join Cultural Heritage Imaging (CHI) in celebrating National Preservation Month this May. The National Trust for Historic Preservation selected “This Place Matters” as the theme for the 2009 preservation month. Visit the trust’s preservation month page for more stories and inspiration:

The CHI team has discovered many places that matter all over the US and the world. CHI wants to show everybody how to digitally preserve the places and objects that matter on our planet and share information about these treasured cultural resources so others will understand why they matter so much and why we need to save them.

Tell Us About the Places and Objects That Matter to You
In honor of National Preservation Month, let the CHI community know what cultural heritage means to you and what you think needs to be digitally documented, physically restored, heroically saved, or just better appreciated in general. We look forward to hearing from you via email or in the blogosphere!