What we can capture with today’s photographic technology is astonishing: in an instant, we can freeze a moment in time and share it widely.
But for all the images that we produce using our cameras, there is a missing human element here. This is why preserving art is not just about archiving paintings – it’s about looking through the lens of real living people and remembering how humanity once saw the world.
Ron Martin, professor of chemistry at Western University, studies and preserves all sorts of historical material. Each of his projects looks at the deeper implications of how people lived and how their thoughts on the natural world evolved.
It turns out that we can tell a lot about what was important to an artist by looking at things as simple as use of colour. For instance, if red was the most expensive pigment, then we can look for where it was used to tease out important ideas, items, or people.
Perhaps even more personal, Martin also studies the teeth of Peruvian mummies to uncover insights into their health and diet.
Martin explains, “Most people don’t know that there’s an annual ring formed on the outside of your tooth, and nobody knows why. But the trace element distribution changes. So when we get a tooth, we can tell if a person was exposed to a disease that compromised calcium, and we can tell what trace elements they’ve been eating.”
These archives record a rich history of what was important to our ancestors, and how they lived.