NICASNetherlands Institute for Conservation Art Science


Dr. Benjamin Rous
Museumstraat 1, 1071 XX Amsterdam
Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands; Delft University of Technology; Rijksmuseum; University of Amsterdam

The Netherlands Institute for Conservation+Art+Science+ (NICAS) is an interdisciplinary research institute. It focuses on the access, presentation and preservation of cultural heritage. It unites the disciplines of conservation, art history and science, branching out into the social sciences in the near future. Its main hub is the Ateliergebouw in Amsterdam, and its founding partners are the Rijksmuseum, the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands, the Faculties of Humanities and Science of the University of Amsterdam and the Delft University of Technology.

NICAS initiates, stimulates and facilitates innovative research on the nature and context of processes of change in cultural heritage objects, and functions as an institute for the advanced study of the history of materials. It assembles scientific expertise and research from academia and cultural heritage institutions while simultaneously ensuring knowledge transfer within society and to those who safeguard cultural heritage.

The NICAS infrastructure has been designated as both a future and an existing infrastructure (see also section 6a). The existing infrastructure is concentrated on the Ateliergebouw in Amsterdam. This infrastructure is intensively used by the founding partners of NICAS and collaborators and partner institutions who approach NICAS with specific questions or problems. The instrumental facilities of the laboratories in the Ateliergebouw have advanced instrumentation for XRF (both laboratory based and handheld XRF), XRD, py-GC/MS, UPLC, ESI-MS, Ion Chromatography, high and low vacuum SFEG-SEM/EDX, ATR-FTIR microscopy, FTIR, a portable Raman 785 nm spectrophotometer and laboratory based Raman microscopy, RTI, FORS, microfadeometry, colorimetry, IRR, X-ray imaging, macro Rontgen-fluorescent scanner, Reflectance Imaging camera’s (400-1000cm-1 and 1000-2500 cm-1), artificially ageing facilities and extensive research microscopy an photography facilities.

The NICAS partners provide access to research facilities and advanced techniques which are outside the Ateliergebouw, like research facilities chemistry labs that are well-equipped for (in)organic syntheses, X-ray absorption spectrometer, single-crystal diffractometer, XRD-scanner, OCT, laser speckle imaging, differential scanning calorimeter, NMR instruments; and laboratories dedicated to GC, GC/MS and HPLC.

The future aspect of the infrastructure mostly concerns the service function for the field at large, which is underdeveloped at present. NICAS aspires to become the national institute for the advanced study of the history of materials, offering its infrastructure and expertise to the entire Dutch cultural heritage field. This service function of the infrastructure will ideally be developed in conjunction with and concentrated on the new Netherlands Collection Centre (CollectieCentrum Nederland, CC NL) near Amersfoort, that will be finished in the second half of 2021. The Ateliergebouw in Amsterdam will then serve as an experimental centre for the development of cutting-edge techniques and fundamental knowledge, which can then be tested and applied in practice at the CC NL facilities.

The central issue within the NICAS infrastructure is the ongoing biography of the object. The infrastructure is used to analyse the objects in as much detail as possible, ascertaining how and with what materials it was made, what the original context of manufacture was (both in a material and a socio-cultural sense), and what the original appearance of the object is likely to have been. Then a comparison is made to the actual state of the object, determining how it has changed over time and, extrapolating the available information using mathematical models, how it will change in the future. The final question then becomes what measures we can take to sustainably control processes of change in order to preserve these objects for future generations.

The study of cultural heritage objects is highly challenging, as works of art are unique, often composed of heterogeneous materials possessing different histories and mechanisms of ageing and degradation. This places extra demands on the analytical equipment used to gather data about the objects. New analytical methods are developed to discriminate between different layers and extremely small differences in chemical composition. This calls for both new, non-destructive equipment and innovative combinations of existing analytical equipment.

The analysis of single objects generates great quantities of data because of the number and sensitivity of the methods used. In addition, the diversity of data sets used for and generated by this type of research (‘messy’ data), necessitates the integration of data science for the fusion and fission of data sets, and to make them visible and usable for researchers and end users (museum and cultural heritage professionals).

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