MIT Invents A Tool For Restoring Damaged Rothko Murals

The MIT Media Lab partnered with Swiss researchers and the Harvard Art Museum has found a way to fix up some Rothko paintings without physically laying a hand on them.

The history of art restoration is scattered with disasters and irreversible errors. Those errors have stigmatized the process. Everything from repainting to cleaning runs the risk of removing the artist’s hand from the work. But now there is a way to restore works to their original glory without physically laying a hand on them. The MIT Media Lab, in collaboration with Swiss researchers and the Harvard Art Museum, has created a light restoration tool and is using it to restore five Rothko murals.


In the early 1960s, Rothko donated five murals to Harvard University, with strict instructions that they be installed in penthouse dining rooms with the blinds drawn. Well, the blinds weren’t drawn, and the paintings suffered horrible sun damage. Food and cocktail stains left by dinner guests were a further slight. Finally, the university removed the faded, abused paintings.

Mark Rothko, Panel One (Harvard Mural Triptych), 1962.© 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Digitally restored scan of a 1964 Ektachrome transparency, Harvard Art Museums, © President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Thanks to MIT’s remarkable light restoration tool, history will be more or less reversed. (The murals will be exhibited in a show at Harvard this fall.) The tool works by determining the paintings’ original colors–for this project, it consulted an undamaged Rothko from the same set of murals. After doing a color mapping analysis, it digitally created a new image and sent it to a projector. Then the murals were hung and illuminated by the projector suspended from the ceiling. The light from the projector fills in the faded gaps in the painting. So when you stand in front of it, the painting appears untouched by age or damage. This form of restoration is revolutionary because its effects are completely reversible with push of a button.

Digital restoration has been used before, but has never been done on this large of a scale. And Rothko’s works are the perfect study on which to try out this new technique because the type of paint Rothko used cannot be replicated. Rothko made his own paint with such ingredients as animal glue and eggs, so it’s extremely difficult to physically retouch his work with any accuracy.

Mark Rothko and Josep Lluís Sert, Holyoke Center, January 1963. Photo: Elizabeth H. Jones, © President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Rothko’s son, Christopher, initially wasn’t sure the new method would work, but after seeing the paintings he was struck by how the light projector made real changes without altering the nature of the work. “My father’s brush strokes are still there,” he told WBUR, an affiliate of NPR. “And the texture of the paint, it’s all still there.”

[H/T: Ars Technica]


About the author

Heba Hasan is a New York-based writer covering art and design. She finds a deep comfort in Buzzfeed quizzes.