Many contemporary art surfaces, particularly those made of highly viscous paints such as acrylic paints with the glass transition temperature close to or at room temperature, are exceptionally difficult to clean. Since many painted surfaces are often electrostatic, they readily attract particles, similarly to PMMA and polystyrene. This leads to problems associated with particulate matter (e.g. dust) being incorporated into the paint layer over time – such particles are impossible to remove without significantly affecting the authentic paint layer and altering important surface characteristics. For instance, an awareness of water and solvent sensitivity and other degradation phenomena associated with modern paints has increased in the past 5-10 years as many of these works of art begin to require surface cleaning. Water sensitivity has been reported in works of art ranging from the early 20th century to recent years. Artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian, Paula Rego, Karel Appel, Jasper Johns, Robyn Denny, Clyfford Still, Patrick Heron, Francis Bacon, and Per Kirkeby and Jackson Pollock have thus far been noted as problematic.
On the other hand, a recent survey of the condition of plastic art objects, conserved since the 1990s in museums of the United Kingdom, France, The Netherlands and Scandinavia, concluded that 75% of them require cleaning. However, few treatments have been developed so far [Y. Shashoua and Ward, In Preprints of Resins, Ancient and Modern, M.Wright & J.H. Townsend eds., 1995, 33-37]. Previous experience has shown that plastics such as polyethylene and plasticized PVC (in a rubber-like phase at room temperature), and PMMA (highly glossy), are visibly abraded by contact with brushes, cloths and sponges. Until the EU-project POPART in 2008 (in which NMD and UCL were partners), there was a prevalent belief that all semi-synthetic and degraded synthetic plastics are sensitive to water and solvents. This limited the cleaning options significantly. POPART showed that water and detergents reduced friction between mechanical cleaning agents and plastics and were effective on a macroscale. However, damage in the form of scratches is observed on a micro-level. Similarly works of art made of polymeric materials such as fibre glass or latex present new challenges to the conservation profession as they work to keep these surfaces as pristine as often the artists intended them to be seen. The goal within NANORESTART was to find a non-destructive cleaning technique employing environmentally friendly fluids and chemical gels. The development of microemulsions and gels through this project allowed conservators carrying out treatments that enabled some of the most important artworks of our times to remain displayable.
Cleaning of acrylics painted layers and plastics was addressed by the research activity in WP2.