31 May 2012
The 150th anniversary of Friedrich Rathgen's birth
Friedrich Rathgen, 2.6.1862 - 19.11.1942
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Rathgen-Forschungslabor
The 150th anniversary of the birth of the man after whom the National Museums' leading institute for conservation science, technical analysis and archaeometry is named, Friedrich Rathgen, falls on 2 June 2012.
Rathgen was born in 1862 and, at the age of just 26 and already a doctor of chemistry, he was appointed as the first director of the Chemical Laboratory at the Royal Museums in Berlin, which was founded on 1 April 1888. He went on to lead the laboratory for the next four decades until his retirement in 1927. The laboratory was initially the first of its kind anywhere in the world and very soon became a place of international importance, whose reach extended far beyond Berlin, due for the most part to its director and his ceaseless dedication. The fact that Rathgen spent a lot of time travelling and publishing findings is testament to his role as a vital scientific advisor and researcher in his field.
Released in 1898, his publication Die Konservierung von Altertumsfunden (The Conservation of Antiquities), a Royal Museums in Berlin handbook, remains a core reference text in this field to this day, while Rathgen himself is considered the founding father of conservation science.
In the late 19th century, the diverse range of objects held by the Berlin art collections, which included archaeological finds, ethnographic and prehistoric objects, all composed of vastly different materials, presented the chemical research laboratory with endless challenges regarding their conservation and care.
One of the first research areas Rathgen worked on was the collection of objects from the Egyptian excavations, such as heavily saline stone and ceramic objects and bronzes destroyed by harmful patina. Rathgen created the foundations for modern conservation science through his systematic chemical analyses of materials and their damage mechanisms and through his combination of a theoretical and practical approach as the essential precondition for the conservation and restoration of cultural artefacts and works of art.