Tape-Removing Gel May Be a Game Changer for Art Restoration

The newly developed hydrogel helps dissolve tape adhesive, one of the stickiest challenges for art conservation and restoration experts

Michelangelo Foot
The inscription unveiled when the tape was removed PNAS

Anyone who’s ever tried to pull an old piece of masking tape off of paper knows it’s no easy task. Inevitably, some of the gummy residue will be left behind like a snail trail or, even worse, the separation will cause the delicate paper to tear.

Now imagine that instead of paper, the job is to remove tape from a potentially priceless artwork. That's the sticky situation that art conservationists recently found themselves in. Luckily, reports Belinda Smith at the Australian Broadcast Corporation, a new method for removing tape successfully allowed the team to unearth the inscription "di mano di Michelangelo" (from Michelangelo's hand) from the 16th-century work without damaging the drawing.

According to a press release, a private collector from Paris brought the drawing—which appears to be a scene from Michelangelo’s "The Last Judgment"—to a team of conservators and researchers led by University of Florence's Piero Baglion. Some 60 or 70 years ago, tape had been placed on the drawing. Besides making the art look tacky, the tape obscured a spot where a signature may have been scrawled.

In order to remove the tape without damaging the art, the researchers decided to experiment with hydrogels, clear gel with nano-sized droplets of organic solvents added in. They firmed their hydrogel up into a sheet, and then cut a slice of the gel to perfectly fit over the piece of tape on the art. They then let the hydrogel go to work, penetrating the tape and dissolving its adhesives. The result was a damage-free removal process. The team describes the new technique in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

With the tape successfully removed from the Sistine Chapel drawing, they were then able to read the hand-written note it concealed: “di mano di Michelangelo.”

As it stands, the researchers aren’t certain if the drawing is indeed by Michelangelo or was made by one of his students. It’s also possible the signature was added by an optimistic collector and later intentionally covered up with the tape by someone who doubted its provenance.

Whatever the case, the new tape-removal method proves reason enough to celebrate. The hydrogel technique could be a game changer for art conservationists. Already Taylor Dafoe at artnet News reports that restorers have used the new hydrogel technique to peel mangy tape off works by Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, Stanley William Hayter and others.

Sarah Zhang at The Atlantic reports that the new technique is much simpler than the techniques conservators were previously using. In the past, taped paper has been floated in baths of solvents to loosen the adhesives as well as placed in a steam chamber.

But New York University paper conservator Margaret Holben Ellis, who was not involved in the study, tells Zhang that she would advise exercising caution toward using the hydrogel more expansively—at least until there’s more evidence to show it is a safe technique. “We tend to be cautious people. We tend to like a lot of evidence before we proceed in treating irreplaceable works of art,” she explains.

Of course, there is also some art that restorers will want to keep especially far from the new hydrogel, like Max Zorn’s works that are made completely from layers of masking tape or the murals of the Tape Art movement, which produces public works of art with blue painter’s tape.

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