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ZEISS Microscopes in the Laboratory for Scientific Restoration of Precious Metals of the State Hermitage

In December 2014, the State Hermitage marked its 250th Anniversary. Today, the Hermitage is more than just one of the largest and most famous museums in the world; it is also an unprecedented restoration center, a storage facility and a science institution. OPTEC and Carl Zeiss were honored to be engaged in the provision of advanced equipment to the Hermitage laboratories.

On the occasion of the museum’s 250th Anniversary, the Laboratory for Science Restoration of Precious Metals received ZEISS flagship test microscopes to work on a unique collection of gold hairpins owned by Catherine the Great. We talked about the specifics underlying the process of handling such interesting items with Igor Malkiel, Head of the Laboratory for Scientific Restoration of Precious Metals.

Please tell us about your laboratory.

Our laboratory is fairly young, it was established in 2004; we only recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. When it was set up, it was decided that the laboratory would capitalize on the knowledge of old specialists and the new high-tech equipment which would help us restore unique exhibits. Before the laboratory was established, we had no such expertise, and the existing equipment was not up to the level of our goals. Our laboratory is now one of the best in Europe in terms of its capabilities and, since 2004, we have restored several thousands of exhibits, something we could not have done before. For instance, we have many 3D modeling devices and we can generate practically any elements of the exhibit that have been lost. We have 3D scanners, machines that can reproduce components according to a model, to the accuracy of a micron. There is also an entire set of laser equipment for metal wielding and refining. An amazing system for enamel restoration and protection has been designed and tested on our exhibits. We perform a really diverse range of operations and there are practically no such tasks that we cannot handle.

What kind of research has been done at the laboratory?

We pay more and more attention to analytical research. A restorer cannot work blindfold; he has to know and see what he is doing and what he is working with. We are assisted by all kinds of technology. For example, we use an X-ray fluorescence analyzer and within 15 — 20 seconds we receive the full spectrum of the metal composition. We perform other kinds of analysis as well. Optical microscopes allow us to visualize the tiniest elements of the objects, to take photographs and record video. When we learn how to use a technology, we have to make sure that it will work consistently every time, so we get things checked, controlled and rechecked again.

Is there any difference in the equipment of the Precious Metal Restoration Department from other Departments? What is needed in your particular case?

Of course, there are equipment and technological solutions that are required by all restoration laboratories, but, we have some exhibits that are several meters long and others measuring only a micron. For this reason, we need equipment that can deal with large objects and objects that are miniature and microscopic. We also have specific equipment designed to work with jewelry. And, certainly, our specialists have to be very knowledgeable about metalworking, materials science, and metallography.

What education do you need to work at the laboratory?

There is no hard and fast rule about it. There is no educational establishment that offers instruction for restorers. I am an archeologist by education; then I studied jewelry in Finland. As an archeologist, I know how the ancient jewelers worked; as a jeweler, I know how modern jewelers work and what modern technologies they employ. We have professional jewelers, engravers and, of course, restorers.

Where do you get your exhibits from? Only from the Hermitage?

The Hermitage possesses a huge storage facility for precious, jeweled exhibits. Of course, we work with them on a regular basis, getting them prepared for exhibitions, and monitoring integrity. It is our regular routine occupation. We are often approached by other museums, not only from Russia, but also from abroad. We help them, because there are not that many other owners of such equipment, and our know-how and expertise allow us to perform unique services. Our specialists visit training centers around the world on a regular basis, they get acquainted both with new and outdated technologies. Let me tell you that whatever equipment you might have, it is nothing but scrap metal without the right people to operate it.

You are now restoring a collection of hairpins owned by Catherine the Great. Please tell us some more about this work.

It is a unique collection of hairpins that is made up of 250 items manufactured by Chinese masters and there is not a collection like it anywhere in the world. The hairpin elements are very fragile; the wire they are made of is only 30 microns thick. If you take such a hairpin in your hands, it might break simply because of its own weight, so you have to be extremely careful. Under the microscope, you can see what cannot normally be seen with your eyes; you can explore elements in great detail and take photos or shoot a video before, during or after your work.

Before we set about restoring an item, we conduct some research. For example, they used to apply water-soluble mineral pigments to hairpins, there is a metal core and there are braze alloys. The items are very thin, so there are a great many restrictions: you cannot heat the item or get it wet, you cannot even touch it that often. At the same time, you need to examine the whole exhibit thoroughly: metal composition, type of braze alloys used; you have to understand the manufacturing technology and establish the pigment composition.

All these things are mandatory. Moreover, after your work is done, all the kinematics should be retained, the hairpins should not be non-functional and everything should be able to move.

There are butterflies that fly, likewise moths and birds — all of them should move as originally conceived by the master. It is essential to grasp how it all worked initially. Furthermore, there is a certain semantic sequence: the turning of the phoenix’s head, the position of its wings. If you are not properly prepared, you can weld the elements in totally the wrong way, and this would be a total failure. That is why we have to read the appropriate literature, work with analogues, consult with curators, as they know the material far better than anyone else.

Our next step is to choose the technology with which we will work on the exhibit. We give a presentation to a restoration committee meeting, sometimes performing virtual restoration, showing what will happen if we apply a given technique. The committee adopts a decision and approves the use of a particular technique to perform the restoration.

Only after that do we proceed to the restoration process. Each step is photographed or recorded on video, we employ optical equipment, optical microscopes, electronic microscopes and such other equipment. Based on the results, all the materials are submitted for the committee’s consideration.

Do you remember any particular projects from your work?

Each project is unique in its own way. For example, there was the restoration of Maria Ivanovna Likhacheva’s treasure that was found in St. Petersburg in 1978 on Vasilievsky Island. It contained gilded silver items hidden underground at the time of the revolution. The silver dishware was made by the best manufacturers and masters from St. Petersburg and Moscow in 1824 — 1910. Overall, there were 227 items in a very poor condition; the metal had almost totally rotted in the alkaline medium. There were cavities and holes; some items had traces of soot as a result of fire, the blazing seams ruptured where copper was used, and the gilded silver had grown darker. It was very difficult to perform the restoration work. Moreover, it transpired that some objects included organic materials: wood, bone, fabric etc. The treasure was placed into long-term storage at the Hermitage for 30 years, as there was no equipment or technologies available for such restoration. We decided that we were ready to handle the project and, in 2008, the restoration work began.

It was with this treasure that we worked for the first time on a latest-generation laser cleaning and laser wielding technique, which satisfied all the museum requirements. We used microscopes too, as we needed detailed photographs at every stage.

We started our research and then proposed a restoration technique. Almost an entire year was needed for the work, with a single operative work on 227 items which were fully restored and readied for public display. The exhibition catalogues described all the technologies that were used to restore the items. Almost 100 years have passed, and people are finally able to see the treasure. What was so interesting about it? It contained «corporate» gifts for the Likhachevs from their coworkers and friends on the occasion of their wedding, the factory’s anniversary and so on. It was a challenging restoration project that had vast historical significance.

I recall another very unusual project. There is a Belgian artist Wim Delvoye, whose work is very provocative. He once brought a bulldozer in the form of a gothic cathedral, to be exhibited at a show here. It was made of stainless steel, 600 kg of metal in the shape of a huge cathedral. During transportation, a laser cutting technique was applied, there were sharp edges left and the bulldozer could not reach its destination without being badly damaged. The entire bulldozer disintegrated and the artist asked us what could be done. We said we would try to put it back together again. Three days and nights without any sleep or rest, and we wielded the entire structure together using the latest technological achievements. We managed to complete the work on time, although we did not even have a single plan or drawing. When Wim Delvoye came to visit us and we showed him the end result, he said he simply could not believe it, as originally a whole team had been involved in wielding for several months and the technology had been very complex. You see, we are confronted with unconventional and multidisciplinary tasks once in a while.

This year, the Hermitage turns 250. What are your feelings about this event, about your work and the role you play?

The Hermitage is not just a matter of its exhibits. There are the people and there is the history.

There are about 3,000 employees at the Hermitage; it is a whole town. It is good that we have such a museum in Russia; it is one of the largest in the world. It is not only a museum, but an enormous research center as well. We have a strong contingent of research workers specializing in diverse disciplines.

We have an expert review team, a restoration team, ten expedition teams who work all across the country and elsewhere in the world. I am an archeologist by education and I have worked for many years and headed expeditions. Before working in restoration, I was a researcher at the Oriental Department, dealing with eastern archeology. The museum complex that has been established, all the research, storage, exploration, the studies and the restoration efforts are all truly unique. All of us here myself, including, can do something we love, performing the work that we can call our mission in life.