Harvard Art Museums Launch Audio Tour Dedicated to the Famed Forbes Pigment Collection

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Alison Cariens, conservation coordinator at the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, Harvard Art Museums. Photo: Caitlin  Cunningham; © President and Fellows of Harvard College.

The Harvard Art Museums launched “A History of Color: An Audio Tour of the Forbes Pigment Collection,” a digital resource that showcases the stories and science behind some of history’s most fascinating colors, all contained within one of the world’s largest collections of historical pigments. The tool takes viewers on a guided tour of 27 pigments, dyes, and raw materials—from ochres and charcoal, the oldest pigments known to have been used by humans, to YInMn blue, which was discovered by accident at Oregon State University in 2009.

The lively stories of these colors are shared through short audio recordings by two Harvard Art Museums staff members who work closely with the Forbes Pigment Collection: Narayan Khandekar, senior conservation scientist and director of the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, and Alison Cariens, conservation coordinator in the Straus Center. Each “stop” on the guided digital tour shows an image of a pigment sample from the Forbes collection along with corresponding audio clips. To provide further visual context, many recordings are paired with images of objects from the museums’ collections that incorporate the pigment, including links to online object records for deeper investigation and prompts on where to view the work in the galleries. Full transcripts of each recording are also available alongside the audio prompts in the slides. Entries for other pigments in the collection will be added to the tour over time.

In the tour, Khandekar and Cariens discuss a wide variety of pigments, including Tyrian purple, which was extracted from small Murex shellfish by the ancient Greeks; cochineal, tiny bugs that produce a red pigment first used by the Aztec and Maya peoples and later highly prized in Europe; mauve, one of the first synthetic dyes, created in 1856 during a search for a cure for malaria; and Emerald Green, a favorite of Van Gogh (and highly toxic).

Tara Metal, the museums’ digital content manager, spearheaded the creation of the tour. Her objective was to expand representation of the pigment collection on the museums’ website.

“Like so many of our visitors, I’ve long been enchanted by the Forbes Pigment Collection and have enjoyed learning the stories behind the pigments from Narayan and Alison over the years,” said Metal. “My aim was to make those stories widely accessible but in a way that still felt intimate. I hope that our audiences come away from this guide with enthusiasm for the intersection of art, science, and history—and of course with a favorite pigment as well!”

“This introduction to the Forbes Pigment Collection only scratches the surface of our collection, but it opens up exciting conversations about color,” said Khandekar. “Color is everywhere around us. Our spaces are filled with items that have been designed and colored with deliberate choice, and the search for color has been happening for thousands of years. Alison and I are excited to share these histories and shed light on what the raw materials of works of art look like.”

“I’m thrilled to be able to share the stories of pigments with audiences around the world,” said Cariens. “I respond to questions about our pigment collection on a daily basis, and this new guide allows me to tell individual stories of pigments and the history of the Forbes Collection on a wider scale.”

The Forbes Pigment Collection, which was begun by former Fogg Art Museum director and Straus Center founder Edward W. Forbes in the early 20th century, has grown to include more than 2,700 samples from all over world. Forbes, along with Rutherford John Gettens—who was the first scientist hired at the Fogg Museum and who collected samples for the Gettens Collection of Binding Media and Varnishes—investigated these materials used by artists to better understand paintings and create a scientific approach to art conservation in the United States.

The majority of the colorful pigments are on display—along with samples of binders, other raw materials, and historical scientific instruments—in a row of gray cabinets on Level 4 of the Harvard Art Museums. The collection is not directly accessible by visitors, but is viewable from a distance, across the Calderwood Courtyard, through glass walls. The cabinets are part of the Straus Center’s analytical lab space, where the pigment samples are in active use by conservation scientists who rely on the samples for testing and as reference materials.

An installation of pigment samples was put on display within the reception space for the Art Study Center, also on Level 4, in late June 2017. These display cases allow visitors to get a closer glimpse of thematic selections of pigments.

The Forbes Pigment Collection has been the subject of videos by CNN’s Great Big Story as well as popular British YouTuber Tom Scott on his Built for Science channel. Simon Schama wrote about the collection for The New Yorker in 2018. Stories have also appeared in Fast Company, Vice, and Artsy, among many other outlets.

(Read the full article and watch the video in the October-November 2020 "News in Conservation" Issue 80, p. 7-8)

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The Harvard Art Museums launched “A History of Color: An Audio Tour of the Forbes Pigment Collection,” a digital resource that showcases the stories and science behind some of history’s most fascinating colors, all contained within one of the world’s largest collections of historical pigments.
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