Smithsonian Voices

From the Smithsonian Museums

Diego Tamburini

Diego Tamburini is an analytical chemist by training and obtained his PhD in Chemistry and Materials Science from the University of Pisa in 2015. He specialized in the use of chromatographic and mass spectrometric techniques for the characterization of organic materials. In particular, his PhD work was mostly related to the application of analytical pyrolysis (Py-GC-MS) to the investigation of archaeological wood and Asian lacquers. He then joined the Scientific Department of the British Museum (London, UK) in 2016 with a three-year Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship focusing on the application of liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry to the identification of natural dyes in historical and archaeological textiles. His main project focused on the palette of Asian dyes used in the Dunhuang textiles. Diego is now a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, National Museum of Asian Art. His project, titled “Exploring the transition from natural to synthetic dyes in the production of 19th-century ikat textiles from Central Asia”, focuses on the dye analysis of the ikat textiles present in the Guido Goldman collection of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, with the main aim to obtain more information about the date and provenance of these textiles.

The Power of Color: Using Synthetic Dyes as a Dating Tool for Museum Textiles

The desire to apply color to a surface is intrinsic to human nature and humans have searched for natural sources of color since prehistoric times. They found out that some minerals could be ground to obtain a fine powder, and this was the origin of the mineral pigments. But they also found out that some plants and animals (insects and mollusks) could yield color when mixed with hot water, and this was the origin of natural dyes. Pigments are suitable to be applied on surfaces by mixing them with a binding medium. Dyes can be applied to fibers in several ways in a water solution. This discovery led to one of the most spectacular forms of art and craftsmanship: dyed textiles.