A 1-mm wobble could mean disaster for the Rembrandt treasure

You need steady hands, steady equipment and a steady lift table to work on one of the world’s greatest art treasures: The Night Watch, by Rembrandt. Fortunately, they are all in place for Operation Night Watch, currently under way at the Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands. This is a massive project to restore one of the most famous works from the Dutch Golden Age. Completed in 1642, the huge painting (3.79 x 4.53 m, 337 kg) is one of Rembrandt’s best-loved pieces.

The restoration team have their work cut out. The Night Watch only acquired its modern name because at some point it had been covered in dark varnish. It was never intended to be a night scene! Furthermore, the painting has been attacked several times over the past century or so with knives and even acid.

The project is both carefully planned and an exploration of the unknown, because nobody knows what went into the painting and what lies beneath its surface. The first part of the project therefore involves creating a map of the painting, layer by layer and pigment by pigment. Only then will the restorers be able to plan their conservation work in detail.

The map is created by making repeated scans of the painting using a range of sensitive equipment. The equipment must be positioned carefully before every scan. This is important to ensure the technology is applied consistently across that vast expanse of canvas. But it is also essential to prevent any physical contact that might damage the painting. That 1 mm wobble really could be a disaster.

“Lift tables offer the capacity, control and precise positioning that the scanners require,” says Niklas Persson, Business Engineer Manager at VPG. “They are also clean and quiet in operation. This is vital when the work is being carried out not only in public, but also in a very sensitive environment at the Rijksmuseum. And of course, they provide a safe work environment for the staff, which is a priority when they are working at the heights that this painting demands.”

The multi-year project is being carried out in full view of the public. You can also follow the progress of Operation Night Watch here.

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