History museum

A collaboration between the Natural History Museum and Ukrainian research, carried out throughout the Russian invasion, helps save the country’s historic works of art

· DNA and microscopic studies of the deteriorated areas have allowed the researchers to conclude that fungi are responsible for the damage – this diagnosis should allow the preservation of these – and other historical works of art in the future.

· Researchers at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine found comfort in being able to carry out this research, despite the ongoing occupation and immense human tragedy unfolding in Ukraine.

· Researchers from the Natural History Museum carried out the final work on the paper as their Ukrainian colleagues were forced to put their lives on hold. It was dedicated to the “brave Ukrainian people”

Natural history researchers in London have collaborated with researchers from Ukraine’s National Academy of Sciences to establish the cause of the damage to the famous medieval wall paintings at Saint Sophia’s Cathedral in kyiv, one of the sites most important cultural sites in Ukraine.

These murals, which were painted on the walls of Saint Sophia Cathedral around the year 1000, are among the most important works of art in Ukraine. It had become apparent that they were under threat when they began to develop dark spots and flake off. In an effort to protect and restore the art, research was conducted to establish the type of microscopic organisms that lived on the walls and caused this damage.

The research began long before the Russian invasion of Ukraine and was interrupted by the attacks on the country, which also included attacks on the country’s unique cultural treasures.

Initial investigations in Kyiv involved the Ukrainian team taking DNA samples from the walls of degraded areas of the cathedral and then comparing them to samples from areas free of damage. From this, they could see that while the levels of bacteria in the two areas were similar, the damaged parts of the church had much higher levels of fungal DNA.

The Ukrainian researchers discovered cracks and voids in the fabric of the walls and unusual large crystals that were totally different from the general fabric of the plaster. A chemical evaluation concluded that it was an organic substance secreted by fungi.

Research, using microscopic techniques at the Natural History Museum in London, established that the crystals were calcium malate, a by-product of malic acid secreted by fungi to feed on inorganic nutrients in plaster. The fungi dissolved the plaster and produced crystals that tore the plaster fabric.

The crystals form from the reaction between the malic acid and the calcium in the plaster. Malate is a very common substance, produced in the cells of all living organisms, but very rarely excreted. It has only been reported in wall paintings twice before, in the monastery of Pedralbes in Barcelona and in the tomb of Tutankhamun.

The abundant presence of calcium malate in the damaged areas raises an important question probably related to fungal adaptation. For some unknown reason, researchers believe that the environmental conditions of the cathedral cause the fungi to release it, rather than other much more common substances. Crystals deposited inside and behind the plaster work break it up and degrade it.

Now that Kyiv researchers know exactly what is happening within the cathedral walls, they hope to be able to prevent it and preserve the murals for years to come.

Ukrainian researcher Marina Fomina, lead author of the paper, says:Russia’s attempts to violently destroy and assimilate much of our cultural identity meant that work to preserve Hagia Sophia and this precious work of art was even more urgent. It is a huge relief to understand the cause of this damage and allow it to be preserved for our national and global cultural heritage..”

Dr. Javier Cuadros, senior researcher at the Natural History Museum and co-author of the paper, played a crucial role in getting the paper across the finish line.

“We have collaborated with them throughout this devastating period. However, when Kyiv was attacked, it was impossible for our colleagues to continue working as they had to suspend their daily lives and flee their homes.

“I am very happy to have been able to play a role in this research. This discovery means a lot to our Ukrainian colleagues and will help preserve their legacy and other historic works of art for future generations..

Hearing about the support they gave each other in their communities was a lesson in human solidarity and holding together in the most difficult times. We dedicated the document to the courageous Ukrainian whose resilience is so admirable.’

The article is published in the November 2022 edition of International Biodeterioration & Biodegradation.

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