To protect works of art, including this image of Disney's Steamboat Willie, scientists developed an optoelectronic "nose" to sniff out potentially damaging compounds in pollution. (Image credit: Steamboat Willie, 1928 Animation cel and background © Disney Enterprises, Inc. Courtesy of Walt Disney Animation Research Library)

To protect works of art, including this image of Disney’s Steamboat Willie, scientists developed an optoelectronic “nose” to sniff out potentially damaging compounds in pollution. Still from “Steamboat Willie” (1928), animation cel and background (© Disney Enterprises, Inc, courtesy Walt Disney Animation Research Library)

When 90 years’ worth of original drawings and sketches from Walt Disney Animation Studios traveled internationally for the first time this summer, they were accompanied by a newfangled protective device: an optoelectronic “nose,” designed to sniff out pollutants in the air before they could irreversibly damage the artwork. Shown in the exhibit Drawn from Life: The Art of Disney Animation Studios, the drawings were the first to benefit from this new development in conservation technology, which researchers say has the potential to lengthen the lifespans of countless artworks.

This supersensitive artificial nose, developed by self-proclaimed “museum hound” and researcher Kenneth Suslick, solves a longstanding problem in the field of art conservation. Even when conservators seal vulnerable pieces in display cases to protect them from pollutants in the air, artworks sometimes “exhale” reactive compounds that build up in the cases and damage them. Though conservators hide sorbent materials inside the cases to help soak up such pollutants, it’s hard to know when to replace the sorbents. This often leads to oxidative damage and acid degradation that can cause color changes or decomposition in prints and canvases.

A diagram of the array cartridge of the artificial “nose” (image courtesy Kenneth Susslick, University of Illinois)

Suslick, a researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, had previously developed a pollutant-sniffing nose used for biomedical purposes. The basic design involves an array of dyes that change color when exposed to various compounds. But it wasn’t sensitive enough to detect the low concentrations of pollutants that can damage highly sensitive works of art. “The high sensitivity of artists’ materials makes a lot of sense for two reasons,” Suslick explained in a statement. “Human beings are capable of healing, which, of course, works of art cannot do. Moreover, human beings have finite lifetimes, whereas ideally works of art should last for future generations.”

To redesign the nose with art preservation in mind, Suslick teamed up with scientists at the Getty Conservation Institute. Together, they created a sensor that they say is several hundred times more receptive than existing devices used for cultural heritage research.

Disappointingly, the sensor doesn’t look like an actual nose — more like a rainbow postage stamp. The device gets hidden discreetly inside an artwork’s frame and is checked periodically to detect any harmful changes. Initial tests with the Walt Disney Animation Research Library showed that it effectively monitored pollution levels in and around framed works, including animation cels from “Steamboat Willie” and Frozen.

The report on this research was presented this week at the 251st National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society. Read it here.

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Carey Dunne

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering arts and culture. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Baffler, The Village Voice, and elsewhere.