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Thursday, May 29 • 2:00pm - 2:30pm
(Wooden Artifacts Session) Improving the legibility of faded handwriting on furniture by digital modification of infrared, ultraviolet and polarized-light-filtered photographs

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This is a session desDuring an ongoing review of American furniture at the MFA Boston, a team of curators and conservators discovered a number of unrecorded inscriptions on the objects. In many cases, the writing was worn, abraded or unintentionally reduced by sanding of surfaces. Darkening of the wood substrate and fading of writing media added to the challenge of deciphering the handwritings. Additional technical examination was required to visualize the faded inscriptions. The information contained in these inscriptions and markings can be invaluable to our curators as they study and research the provenance of furniture in their collection.
Infrared photography has been used for years to help read inscriptions on furniture. While the technique is useful for revealing remnants of writing materials containing carbon, it appears to be less applicable for tracing other media. But cabinet makers also used chalk, ink and pointed tools to mark their work.
The search for suitable examination techniques for these less researched writing media led us to experiment with different kinds of illumination and digital modification of images. UV-induced fluorescence was found to improve legibility of faded inscriptions written in ink. An inscription of chalk, which was heavily abraded, became visible by using the relief tool available in Adobe Photoshop.
Our initial results from using various photographic techniques were put into context by comparing research of other conservation disciplines related to writing materials, and to a more systematic approach.
The experiments were undertaken mostly by using the standard digital photography equipment in our lab. Our old and cumbersome digital infrared camera was retired, and a regular DSLR camera was refitted by a specialized company to serve for near-infrared and reflected UV photography.
The general image quality of photographs was also improved by using polarized filters on lenses and light sources. This reduced the glare of the wooden substrate underneath the inscriptions, and gave a better image overall.
With these little modifications to our photography routine and minor improvements to our equipment, we achieved noticeably better raw files. Processing with imaging software benefitted from the better initial quality of the photographs.
While many conservators most commonly use image processing software for color correction and adjustment of contrast and sharpness, there are many more digital tools in software such as Adobe Photoshop. Together with professional photographers at the MFA, a variety of options was explored to further enhance traces of inscriptions captured in digital images.
The combination of different photographic and software applications improved the legibility of inscriptions handwritten in media other than pencil. Several case studies will be presented to demonstrate the results of our research.

avatar for Christine Schaette

Christine Schaette

Assistant Furniture Conservator, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Christine Schaette received her bachelor’s degree in furniture conservation from the University of Applied Sciences, Cologne, Germany, in 2006. During this time she interned at the Sherman Fairchild Center for Objects Conservation at the Metropolitan Museum of Arts, New York. In... Read More →

Thursday May 29, 2014 2:00pm - 2:30pm PDT
Regency Room