Cultural heritage scientists re-write the book, expand access to X-ray technology

Friday, March 19, 2021

By Stéphanie Machabée

When Yale Library conservators and collection managers puzzled over the presence of arsenic in the letters of Ezra Stiles, the university’s seventh president, they turned to high-tech X-ray Fluorescence Spectroscopy (XRF) techniques for accurate – and safe – analysis.

In 2018 a group of Yale students carried the same hand-held XRF instruments to Princeton University to analyze the work of American photography pioneer Charles H. White, establishing timelines for over 80 photographs based on the materials used to form the images.

The non-destructive technique has numerous benefits, allowing researchers to determine the chemical composition of materials by measuring X-rays emitted from a sample.

Mobile handheld XRF devices have transformed the technology by shrinking both its cost and size, making it readily accessible to researchers for the analysis of everything from paintings to photographs and on metal, glass, ceramic surfaces, and even cave walls.

However, acquiring the specialized skills to use XRF can be a hurdle for those with limited resources.

Published in 2020, Handheld XRF in Cultural Heritage: A Practical Workbook for Conservators aims to fill this gap, providing conservators from around the world with ready access to Yale’s expertise in their own labs.

“We’re inspiring a new level of learning through use of this technology in our research here at Yale,” says Anikó Bezur, Wallace S. Wilson Director of Scientific Research at Yale’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage (IPCH), “but we weren’t reaching the many more scholars who are interested and ready to make use of this technology.”

Bezur and her collaborators initially hosted several XRF “bootcamps,” intensive four-day practice-based workshops funded by the Getty Conservation Institute and the IPCH.
Though successful, the travel required placed a considerable time and financial burden on attendees.

“This is why the book was born,” continues Bezur. “We were ready to scale beyond what we could offer in workshops. The time was right to produce a trusted, expert guidebook to support expanded use of XRF and empower cultural heritage colleagues around the globe to independently learn and apply the technology.”

The book aims to make practical learning more accessible, empowering conservators and collection managers with the ability to use the technology themselves to address questions about objects in their care, and ultimately pass on their knowledge and skills.

“The Handheld XRF workbook is an outstanding model of international collaboration that exemplifies one of the main aims of IPCH, which is to connect with heritage practitioners outside the well-resourced cultural infrastructure in Europe and North America,” said Alison Gilchrest, director of Applied Research and Outreach at the Institute.

“Having it launch just before the global pandemic made in-person training impossible has only increased its value to the field.”

The scholars are now looking at new possibilities for XRF training as an entirely virtual experience.

Handheld XRF in Cultural Heritage: A Practical Workbook for Conservators is available for print on demand at and accessible online free of charge at Alongside Bezur, authors include Lynn Lee and Karen Trentelman of the Getty Conservation Institute and Maggi Loubser of the University of Pretoria.

Stéphanie Machabée is a PhD candidate in Ancient Christianity at Yale, specializing in collective memory, cultural heritage, religion, and museum studies. She is a current GSAS Professional Experience Fellow at Yale’s West Campus.