Martin Cooper: Makeovers for Masterpieces

Fifteen years ago, Martin Cooperwas just another physics major anticipating a typical big-business science research job. If anyone had told him he'd end up at the forefront of England's art-restoration industry, he would have politely intimated that the idea was absurd.

Yet today he sits in an airy, highly secured workspace, surrounded by a dozen souped-up PCs and specially shielded rooms containing four US $50 000-plus lasers. Here, he breathes new life into priceless Edgar Degas sculptures, thousand-year-old Saxon crosses, a Roman skull, and even medieval graffiti left behind by prisoners locked in the infamous Tower of London.

"I never really had a clear idea of what I wanted to do for a career, but I would have never guessed I'd be working in a museum," says Cooper. He grew up in Hertfordshire, near London, the son of a statistician and a secretarial instructor. On the verge of graduating from Loughborough University in 1990, Cooper applied for a few physics research jobs in manufacturing firms.

Luckily, no one bit. When one of his professors advertised for a doctoral student to help fine-tune lasers to clean pollution from stone sculpture, he thought, "Well, that sounds interesting. I'll try that."

By the time Cooper finished his Ph.D. in 1994, the laser technology had attracted the attention of the National Museums Liverpool, which was looking for safer restoration methods--and Cooper landed a job.

The museums' restoration units were combined and renamed the Conservation Centre in 1997. Since then, Cooper has been a scientist with its Conservation Technologies division, where he uses lasers and computer modeling to restore, replicate, and catalog public monuments, museum art, and private collections.

For all its sophistication, the Centre's equipment uses established technologies rather than new inventions. Its lasers release 10-nanosecond pulses of infrared light at a wavelength of 1064 nanometers--just what it takes to vaporize accumulated dirt and corrosion without harming the artwork itself. The contaminant coating, usually carbon and gypsum from pollutants, absorbs the light energy before the underlying marble, limestone, or bronze does, causing the coating to pop off, a technique similar to laser cosmetic surgery.

"You have to be careful, because every surface absorbs some of the energy," says Cooper. "So if you don't know what you're doing, you can damage [the art], just like you can with a scalpel or a steam cleaner."

Fewer than a dozen companies in Europe do this kind of work, with the bulk concentrated in the art meccas of France and Italy. The Liverpool presence stems from the city's life in centuries past as a premier trading port that was home to wealthy art collectors. Since its inception, the Centre has been housed in a converted brick railway warehouse, a few blocks from the basement nightclub where the Beatles first performed. Indeed, everyone in town sounds a bit like the Fab Four.

Centre clients, which include museums, municipalities, churches, and private collectors, pay from $1000 to $100 000 for restorations. They come from all over Europe and America; once Cooper even flew to Cambodia to do a presentation on laser scanning for preservation of the temple of Angkor Wat. "We get a really wide range of projects to work on," he says.

Cooper says his work requires an understanding of science and art, though not necessarily a degree in either. "But had I not done the physics," he muses, "then I wouldn't have gotten involved in lasers or ended up doing what I'm doing now." Between restorations, he juggles educational seminars, trains new equipment operators, solicits work, and raises funds.

For three years now, Cooper has also honed his skills in modeling, so that some Centre replications can go on display outdoors while the originals are kept under glass in museums. The modeling process involves scanning the detailed three-dimensional shape of a sculpture into a computer, then cutting a stone replica with a computer-controlled milling machine. The stored scan also becomes a digital record.

While the scope of his job provides plenty of challenges, Cooper says his time is comfortably split between the lab and the sites, and his low-pressure, 40-hour workweek gives him time to enjoy sports and his kids. (He and his wife, Jill, just had their third.) For a science guy surrounded by art, his perpetual smile and air of relaxed exuberance clearly show the effects of his unexpected career.

"I wouldn't want to do something that involved 80 hours a week, because, to me, home life and family are more important," he says. "But this is a lovely environment to work in. I'm surrounded by nice objects and travel to interesting places. We're quite spoiled with these facilities. Very often you find conservation departments hidden away in basements."

His workspace was recently usurped by chunks of Liverpool's Lord Nelson monument, which was undergoing a high-profile spruce-up to commemorate the 200th anniversary last October of the Battle of Trafalgar. But Cooper is just as proud of less heralded projects, such as restoring the St. Christopher statue at nearby Norton Priory Museums Trust.

"He's the largest medieval figure sculpture in the country," Cooper says, motioning to a photo of the statue. "Fantastic piece. Now we're working on replicating parts of the original and re-creating the original color on a model to show how he might have been displayed during medieval times."

Though he's no showman, Cooper enjoys watching public reactions to his handiwork, especially when people can't tell the originals from the replicas. "It's quite satisfying when members of the public don't realize which part is the restoration," he laughs.

Martin Cooper

Age: 38.

What he does: Works with lasers and three-dimensional scanners to restore and replicate priceless artwork.

For whom: The Conservation Centre of the National Museums Liverpool, England.

Fun factors: Makes the world prettier one artifact at a time. Has few deadlines, an actual 40-hour week that leaves time for family, varying challenges with each job, and beautiful, art-filled surroundings.

About the Author

SUSAN KARLIN (skarlin@aol.com), based in Los Angeles, writes about science and technology.

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