Fifteen years ago, Martin Cooper was just another physics major anticipating a typical big-business science research job. If anyone had told him he’d end up at the forefront of England’s art-restoration industry, he would have politely intimated that the idea was absurd.
From an article in IEEE Spectrum by Susan Karlin and Tekla Perry. Photo by Moy Williams
Yet today he sits in an airy, highly secured workspace, surrounded by a dozen souped-up PCs and specially shielded rooms containing four US $50 000-plus lasers. Here, he breathes new life into priceless Edgar Degas sculptures, thousand-year-old Saxon crosses, a Roman skull, and even medieval graffiti left behind by prisoners locked in the infamous Tower of London.
“I never really had a clear idea of what I wanted to do for a career, but I would have never guessed I’d be working in a museum” says Cooper. He grew up in Hertfordshire, near London, the son of a statistician and a secretarial instructor. On the verge of graduating from Loughborough University in 1990, Cooper applied for a few physics research jobs in manufacturing firms.
Luckily, no one bit. When one of his professors advertised for a doctoral student to help fine-tune lasers to clean pollution from stone sculpture, he thought, “Well, that sounds interesting. I’ll try that.”
By the time Cooper finished his Ph.D. in 1994, the laser technology had attracted the attention of the National Museums Liverpool, which was looking for safer restoration methods–and Cooper landed a job.
The museums’ restoration units were combined and renamed the Conservation Centre in 1997. Since then, Cooper has been a scientist with its Conservation Technologies division, where he uses lasers and computer modeling to restore, replicate, and catalog public monuments, museum art, and private collections.
For all its sophistication, the Centre’s equipment uses established technologies rather than new inventions. Its lasers release 10-nanosecond pulses of infrared light at a wavelength of 1064 nanometers–just what it takes to vaporize accumulated dirt and corrosion without harming the artwork itself. The contaminant coating, usually carbon and gypsum from pollutants, absorbs the light energy before the underlying marble, limestone, or bronze does, causing the coating to pop off, a technique similar to laser cosmetic surgery.
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