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Philippe Colomban

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Philippe Colomban, a light wizard in the service of art and history

His research interests lie at the crossroads of science, art and history. Director of UPMC’s LADIR (laboratory of dynamics, interactions and reactivity - 50 people) and research director at the CNRS, Philippe Colomban is working on the development of tools able to make materials “talk”, which will help better understand the objets d’art from our historic and cultural heritage. “The basic principle of our method, which is broad and can be broken down, is to illuminate materials by laser. The projected light interacts with the object, which sends back a part of it. A fraction of this reflected light contains key information on the composition and structure of its matter”, explains Philippe Colomban. “We use different wavelengths – from ultraviolet to infrared – depending on the material being studied.” The information delivered as if by magic by the objects, which may be very old, lets the techniques used in making them be known. Consequently, they can be identified and sometimes dated. This information also helps improve our understanding of the mechanisms of degradation of these heritage pieces, which in turn helps in their restoration. Some of the tools of analysis and decryption of materials developed by the LADIR are then put to practical use by laboratories such as the centre de restauration et de recherche des musées de France (French museums’ centre for restoration and research - C2RMF) and the laboratoire de recherche des monuments historiques (historic monuments research laboratory - LRMH).

Currently, for this activity, the chemist and his team’s research focuses on three categories of material: glass in a general sense (glass objects, stained-glass, ceramics), the corrosion of metals and old cloth. Philippe Colomban mainly conducts his experiments in the laboratory, using samples of materials collected in auction houses or from dealers and experts. “It is only once the tool being developed functions properly that it can be used on objets d’art lent by museums”, the scientist explains. He can also carry out full-scale experiments, as was the case between November 2007 and April 2008 at the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. “The objects we had to analyze were the Sainte-Chapelle’s stained-glass windows, some of which, like the rose window, were in a very bad state.” Philippe Colomban tells us. “We had to try and determine, using our optic method, which of the stained-glass windows were authentic and which dated from a 19th century restoration, with a historian’s inventory from the 1950s as our starting point.” And here science proved its effectiveness. “We were able to perfect the historians’ findings and determine more precisely the authenticity or otherwise of the windows studied. This information is fundamental for restoration, which differs depending on the age of the stained glass”, the researcher concludes. And that, it must be said, is science coming to the aid of art and history.





02/04/09