New biotechnology protects art and history in the tropics

Author:  Katrina Outland
Institution:  Hawaii Pacific University
Date:  November 2004

United Nations University in Venezuela displayed new biotechnology techniques to protect cultural heritage this week at their international symposium. Books, photos, paintings, sculptures, and other artistic treasures are threatened by the harsh tropical environment. However, the specialized program United Nations University Program for Biotechnology in Latin American and the Caribbean (UNU-BIOLAC), directed by José Luis Ramirez, is trying to remedy that. Ramirez’s team uses biotechnology to identify specific organic materials, such as paper and wood, used in art and historical records to devise more effective ways of protecting them.

"There are millions of bacteria and fungi causing a disaster throughout the developing world," said Ramirez. "Biotechnology allows us to identify exactly the material used by an artist, the specific pest that has invaded or threatens it, and to customize the preservation treatment required."

Unlike in temperate regions, in tropical regions relatively little attention has been paid to restoring damage due to insects, heat, humidity, fungus, and other natural causes. Traditional technologies can damage artwork. UNU-BIOLAC’s biological techniques are safer and more effective. For example, UNU-BIOLAC scientists use DNA-sequencing technology to identify specific insects and bacteria that erode types of wood used by colonial-era Venezuelan artists. Now they are researching bacterial toxins as a more natural way to destroy these pests.

The symposium on Nov. 4-5, co-hosted by UNU-BIOLAC, attracted over 100 museum curators from around the world. And small wonder: according to curator Tahia Rivero of the Banco Mercantil Foundation, an estimated one-third of Venezuela’s artistic heritage has already been destroyed by climate and insects. Of particular concern are the letters and archives of General Simon Bolivar, who led the independence for Venezuela and many Central and South American countries.

"These records are really compromised," said Dr. Ramirez. "Something has to be done soon to save them."