Master of the Fade. Kid of Kid 'n Play. (Image retrieved here.)
Christopher "Kid" Reid of Kid 'n Play, a hip-hop duo which had its heyday in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was perhaps best distinguished by his towering high-top fade, a hair-do defined by its short hair on the sides and long hair on the top, usually cut with great geometric precision. When Brian Jungen's Crux (as seen from those who sleep on the surface of the earth under the night sky) was hung in the main rotunda of NMAI, in front of the large bank of windows, we were worried about another kind of fade, that of the discoloration of the plastics by exposure to UV (ultraviolet) and visible light. As a precaution, a film that blocked UV and some visible light was placed on the windows. While these measures were taken, we still wanted to understand what kind of fading to expect from these plastics under exposure to visible light.
This can be done! With a technology called the microfader tester (MFT). It’s science in action.
If you walk across the National Mall from NMAI, you may stumble upon the National Gallery of Art (which will be hosting a workshop for teachers about Mr. Jungen’s work in February 2010). Down in the Scientific Research Department, you’ll find conservation scientist Dr. Christopher Maines. He is in possession of a microfader tester. And he’s really good at using it, which is no easy feat.
The MFT is used to detect light-sensitivity and lightfastness of the materials, which comprise your museum object. It does this without leaving visible evidence of the test on the object. The MFT has a light source, only tenths of a millimeter in diameter, filtered of UV and infrared light, which is directed at an area on the surface of the object. The reflected light from the surface of the object transfers through a spectrophotometer, which measures the color change and fading over a period of several minutes. This is compared with fading and lightfastness standards. Thus the MFT can determine a rate of fading over a short period, leaving virtually no trace on the actual object, and giving us a better sense of how light stable the object is, and if, for how long, and under what conditions it should be on display. Pretty neat.
The MFT can be used on all sorts of materials. Take, for example, lipstick. Namely artist Frida Kahlo’s lipstick. She liked her S.W.A.K.s and had a tendency to sign off her letters with lipsticked kisses. Germaine Greer did not call her “Patron Saint of Lipstick and Lavender Feminism” for nothing. In the collection of the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, there is a letter from Frida to Emmy Lou Packard regarding Frida’s husband Diego Rivera’s health and other business. Frida signs the letter with multiple lipsticked kisses, along the bottom edge, one in each box for each of her objects of affection.
Most companies say their lipsticks are made to last. (“Stay supple, stay true… Of course they last.”) But could Frida’s lipstick stand being on museum display? Using the MFT, Dr. Maines working with Nora Lockshin, the paper conservator from Archives of American Art, determined that the lipstick was actually incredibly light sensitive and if overexposed by visible light, the lipstick’s vibrancy would quickly diminish. Display would have to be for very short duration, in a highly controlled setting, or not displayed at all. Luckily for us, digital images are readily accessible.
(Frida Kahlo was prolific with her kisses. Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscripts Library has a lipstick-laden note as well. Here you can read more lipstick preservation, as related to that note and artist Rachel Lachowicz, known for her use of cosmetics in her work.)
But back to luggage, briefly. We took five samples of luggage plastic from Crux over to Dr. Maines, who generously ran the MFT on the samples. It turns out, the plastics are rather resilient to fading, perhaps even more so than expected, but will fade if continually exposed to visible light for long periods. So good we put up the window film. We wouldn’t want to see the crocodile or its compatriots go pale.