Conference Review – Subliming Surfaces: Volatile Binding Media in Heritage Conservation

This review was written by Tony Sigel, Conservator of Objects and Sculpture, Harvard Art Museums and originally published in ICOM-CC Scientific Research Working Group Newsletter, Vol. 1, No.1, 2015.  It is posted here with permission of the author.

April 15–16, 2015
Cambridge, United Kingdom
Organized by the University of Cambridge Museums, this conference provided the first opportunity for the profession to gather, share papers and posters, and discuss volatile binding media (VBM), principally cyclododecane (CDD). Combining invited and submitted papers and posters, participants came from Europe, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Attendees were presented with critical reviews of use; current research; and case studies from a broad range of conservation disciplines. The conference began with an overview presented by the organizers, “Subliming surfaces: the first 20 years.” The program was then divided into sections.
Reviews of VBM’s in practice featured:

  • case studies of use (mainly CDD) in archaeological fieldwork;
  • the cleaning of fossil vertebrates;
  • wall painting and fresco conservation;
  • easel painting consolidation;
  • textiles, book and paper conservation;
  • archaeological ceramics desalination;
  • and the mounting of sensors in historic buildings.

VBM’s under scrutiny discussed:

  • chemical purity;
  • the sublimation rate and its relation to paper characteristics;
  • the consolidation of ceramics to be desalinated;
  • longterm use in archaeological contexts,
  • and as an enhancement for tetrahertz imaging of frescoes.

Many presentations raised questions of health, safety, and environmental concerns, and the talks presented in this well attended section generated much discussion. The speakers pointed out CDD’s low persistence in the environment, the difficulty of bioaccumulation sufficient to be a hazard, lack of mutagenic or eco-toxic effect, and lack of toxicity to humans. Nevertheless, the conservative nature of, well, conservators, caused many to remain concerned about possible risk, particularly due to fairly relaxed suggestions regarding personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilation.
The poster presentation, containing many worthy presentations, was well attended. Highlights of the conference were its meticulous organization and the determination of the organizers, Christina Rozeik and Sophie Rowe, who made sure there were generous opportunities for questions and discussion between talks as well as extended conversations throughout the day, at meals and during breaks.
Standouts were guest lecturers Hans Hangleiter and Leonie Saltzmann, who presented “20 years of Volatile Binding Media.” Hangleiter was part of the original German group which first developed the use of volatile binding media in conservation in the early 1990s. They discussed these origins, less well-known alternatives to cyclododecane, and ingenious uses for these materials that they have developed in their conservation practice. The lecture was followed by a reception in the Fitzwilliam Museum and private view of the exhibition, Treasured Possessions from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. The conference concluded on Friday with conservation lab tours and a half-day practical workshop on the use of cyclododecane and other VBM’s. The workshop was so well attended that an additional session was added to meet the demand. Participants had the opportunity to try cyclododecane with a variety of tools in a range of situations across conservation disciplines. Afterwards, experiences were shared at a cozy wrap-up session over tea. Altogether, this was one of the most practically useful and well-organized conferences I’ve attended. The collected postprints will be presented in an online publication, and should prove to be essential reading for conservators from many disciplines.
For addition information on CDD and Volatile Binding Media visit the AIC wiki page.