When art meets science

The secret is in our name, which stems from the Golden Ratio, and points to the need to discover the ‘indices and ratios’ underlying art collections.

Manoj Phatak, ArtRatio, 2019.

The science behind conservation of precious art and artefacts is a concern for public galleries and private collectors alike. As curators we are always balancing the impulse for preservation with a desire to share. If you are a retail curator you want to get your products well-displayed and noticed. But what kind of science and tech can help us in these quests? In this latest edition of our interviews with curators we speak with Manoj Phatak, founder and CEO of ArtRatio, a boutique manufacturer of smart glass vitrines which protect and display fragile art, antiques and luxury items.

Tell us a bit about yourself and how you got interested in art and conservation?

I am an engineer with a background in physics, not a conservator (although we do have a professional conservator on our team). I often look at works of art as a collections of materials, each of variable sensitivity to a number of conservation factors. Over the last 10 years I have accumulated some knowledge in conservation, especially light sensitivity, but I always double check with a professional conservator before advising clients. My personal interest is more in historical documents, such as antique maps, books, and manuscripts. I could look at an antique map for hours…

What kinds of people and organisation use your products?

Our products are used mainly by museums and private / corporate collectors. This latter group has a real need for our products as the owners do not live in a museum (with controlled environmental conditions) but rather in private residences with abundant daylighting and environmental conditions tuned to the needs of humans, not works of art. Sometimes the works are exhibited in a corporate office or library with less than optimal conditions, due to pollution or vibration from revolving doors close to busy arterial roads.

In your view, how does the art world of public galleries and museums differ from that of luxury retail and the art market?

Public galleries are often designed from the ground up with minimal daylighting, either due to having no windows at all or boarded up windows (if it is a listed building), so the issue of light has been avoided entirely. The trouble is that artificial lighting is then needed, often powered continually and placed in close proximity to the most sensitive objects, defeating the whole purpose of removing the natural light source. Luxury retail and private art collectors, as mentioned before, often have no such design constraint, so have abundant natural daylight (and often UV-rich fluorescent lighting) which requires closer control to avoid damaging the items on display.

Smart glass in action in one of ArtRatio’s installations. Credit: ArtRatio.

In layman’s terms what is the science behind your cases, vitrines and plinths, how is this different from conventional cases?

In layman’s terms, we aim to reduce the light exposure, which is the total amount of energy impacting the objects in the collection. If you can imagine switching the lights in a room on and off, the total energy would be the total time that the lights are switched on, right? Our products calculate this total as the light exposure, and then based on the sensitivity of the items, we can advise clients if the exposure levels are within international recommendations, or not.

You have developed your products with ‘smart glass’, how does that work?

A panel of smart glass is a ‘sandwich’, composed of two outer panels of tempered glass (with the outer panel having an anti-reflective coating) on it. On the inside is another ‘sandwich’ of two transparent conductive plastic layers surrounding the ‘SPD’ interlayer, which switches transparency when we apply an alternating voltage (normally 100Vac). SPD stands for Suspended Particle Devices and is patented by Research Frontier Inc. (RFI) in the US. When the AC voltage is applied, the molecules inside the polymer interlayer form alternating dipoles, stretching in the same direction as the electric field, letting light pass. When no voltage is applied, the molecules take on a random orientation, absorbing the light.

It’s really interesting that ArtRatio products can produce detailed metrics, e.g. on the conditions of a valuable item, artwork or artefact, what else can they tell you? 

All our products capture a variety of information inside the display case, including temperature, humidity, light and proximity events (whenever someone approaches the display case, for example). The total time that the object has been viewed is calculated and shown as an index of popularity, which can help institutions to measure visitor engagement per display case, rather than per gallery, as is currently done in most museums. We believe this could also help museums to make a business case for funding, since the hard numbers indicate where visitors are spending most time and also at what time, since all data is time-stamped with the timezone of the vitrine.

Smart plinths beautifully present products for retail and can also tell you how many and for how long customers view them. Credit: ArtRatio.

Normally art and science are poles apart but it seems that in your profession they are closely linked together, why is this important?

The secret is in our name, which stems from the Golden Ratio, and points to the need to discover the ‘indices and ratios’ underlying art collections, much as we look for indices and ratios in any other financial asset class. This helps to help make better decisions based on the risk that the collection is being exposed to, the balance of exhibition vs conservation and finally the popularity of the items on display.

What’s the most inspiring set of objects you’ve seen in your cases?

That would be the installation we did in July 2019 for a private collector in London, who chose to display a collection of original books by none other than Sir Isaac Newton. This was of special importance to me personally, due to my studies in engineering as well as the fact that Newton was responsible for many of the theories behind optics, which underpin the very technologies in ArtRatio products. We felt truly honoured!

What has been your biggest challenge or memorable moment at ArtRatio?

The biggest challenge has been coordinating the logistical operations in designing and building the product, as well as packaging and delivering it to the client’s location. I must liaise with multiple professionals and understand the issues, make tough decisions and stand by them if they do not work out. Having said that, I could not ask for better experience. No degree in engineering and no MBA could have taught me the practical aspects of running such an operation. 

The most memorable moment was surely seeing an ArtRatio smart glass frame protecting the original map of the 1815 Battle of Waterloo, displayed at the Royal Engineers Museum in Kent. This map still has the pencil markings of the 1st Duke of Wellington on it. It is both sensitive to light and has friable media on it (pencil graphite) which could lift off unless the electrostatic charge is controlled adequately.

If you are interested in learning more about the science and tech behind art conservation and metrics, head over to the ArtRatio blog.

Manoj Phatak, Founder and CEO of ArtRatio.