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ArtGarden: Research Enclosed Gardens and preventive conservation of Mixed-Media objects

How do you preserve items made of various materials, such as the Enclosed Gardens (Besloten Hofjes) in Mechelen? Within the ArtGarden project, an interdisciplinary research team determines the ideal preservation conditions for these kinds of historical mixed-media items. We make the results accessible to the broader heritage sector through the online tool AGATO.

KU Leuven
University of Antwerp
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Marjolijn Debulpaep, head of the Preventive Conservation Unit
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Elke Otten, scientific collaborator, Preventive Conservation Unit
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Motive: the restoration of the Enclosed Gardens

In 2014, an interdisciplinary team of independent conservators started the restoration of the seven ‘Besloten Hofjes’ in the Museum Hof van Busleyden in Mechelen. These Gardens are a unique collection of richly upholstered retable cases from the early 16th century and are listed on the Flemish Masterpieces List. They are filled with delicate sculptures, objects and elements in many materials: wood, silk, wax, alabaster, pipe clay, parchment, glass, coral, metal. It is unique that these Enclosed Gardens have been preserved so well.

Preventive conservation

In parallel with the restoration treatment, the project members are also looking for the best way to preserve the Enclosed Gardens for future generations through preventive conservation. "This is a complex challenge, as each material has its specific conservation requirement," says Marjolijn Debulpaep, Head of Preventive Conservation at the Institute. "Following an in-depth analysis of the Enclosed Gardens and some other mixed media objects, we have identified the optimal conservation conditions for these cultural heritage items based on ten agents of deterioration."

Methodology and analysis techniques

The team members conducted various studies using several analytical techniques to determine the ideal storage conditions for these materials.

Source analysis in the history of art and technology

The researchers describe the provenance, historical context and iconography of these objects, as well as the historical techniques and materials used to make them.

Scientific imaging

The researchers visualised the texture, shapes and depth structure of the Enclosed Gardens and other objects using modern imaging techniques:

Scientific research on materials and techniques

The Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage laboratories, the University of Antwerp and the KU Leuven shared their expertise. They map out the brilliant materials used and the degradation processes present.

Marina Van Bos

For identifying the materials and degradation processes, we mainly work with non-invasive analysis techniques, such as X-ray fluorescence. Where necessary, we take small material samples for additional analysis.

Marina Van Bos, head of Paper, Leather and Parchment Lab

A user-friendly tool for the heritage sector

To find out what risks the materials in your mixed-media object are exposed to and how you can avoid damage, we built Agato, a Decision Support Tool that gives an immediate assessment of the risks with valuable recommendations.

Would you like to know if your historic mixed media object is conserved in a safe way? To which elements in the environment of your object you should pay attention so they would not harm your object? Or on which materials you should keep an eye because they risk degrading?

AGATO will assist you with an overview of risks that could cause damage to your object and with recommendations for the preventive conservation of the materials most susceptible for damage. These should enable you to decide which action to take.

Available for free from 8 December 2022 on

Elke Otten

The different materials in these complexly composed objects each have specific requirements for preservation. In 2022, we will launch Agato: an online tool to help heritage professionals with the preventive conservation of mixed-media objects.

Elke Otten, scientific collaborator, Preventive Conservation Unit

Unique interdisciplinary cooperation

The strength of the ArtGarden project lies in the powerful collaboration between the three scientific project partners, which include :

  • the Preventive Conservation Unit (coordinator), the Textile Research Lab & the Lab of Paper, Leather & Parchment of the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA)
  • the Faculty of Theology & Religious Studies & the Faculty of Arts of the KU Leuven University (Book Heritage Lab & VIEW - KU Leuven Core facility for Heritage Science and Digitisation Technologies)
  • the Department of Bioscience Engineering of the University of Antwerp (A-Sense Lab / Antwerp Electrochemical and Analytical Sciences Lab).

This project was realised with the support of our financial partner

ArtGarden is a network-project funded by the Belgian Federal Public Planning Service Science Policy, Belspo (2016-2022). It is part of the BRAIN-be research program (Belgian Research Action through Interdisciplinary Networks).

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