Motive: the restoration of the Mechelse Hofjes
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 Hofjes are a unique collection of richly upholstered retable cases from the early 16th century and are included 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 Hofjes have been preserved so well.
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 Walled Gardens and some other mixed media objects, we have identified the optimal conservation conditions for these cultural heritage items based on ten risk factors."
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 researcher describes the provenance, historical context and iconography of these objects, as well as the historical techniques and materials used to make them.
The researcher visualised the texture, shapes and depth structure of the Walled Gardens and other objects using modern imaging techniques:
- X-ray photography
- infrared reflectography
- high-resolution images with the Portable Light Dome van de KU Leuven
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.
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.
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.
Unique interdisciplinary cooperation
The project is carried out by an interdisciplinary team. Within the Institute, the Preventive Conservation Unit is coordinating the project. The laboratories examine materials and techniques based on case studies in collaboration with the Glass and Ceramics Studio and the Textile Studio, while the Documentation Department is responsible for the imaging.
The other partners are the KU Leuven (Illuminare - Study Centre for Medieval Art and the Book Heritage Lab) and the University of Antwerp (research group AXES).