Pigment Collection Colors All Aspects of the Museums

October 21, 2019
Index Magazine

Pigment Collection Colors All Aspects of the Museums

Woman standing beside the Forbes Pigment Collection cabinets handles materials with gloved hands and has a tray of pigments and materials in front of her.
Photo: Caitlin Cunningham Photography Conservation coordinator Alison Cariens handles objects from the pigment collection.

“Can I see the pigments?”

That’s the first question many visitors ask when they arrive on Level 4 and gaze across the Calderwood Courtyard to the world-famous Forbes Pigment Collection.

Of course you can see the pigments. They’re always on view—just at a distance.

The Forbes Pigment Collection—an assemblage of more than 2,700 pigments (and counting!)—is in active use by conservation scientists at the museums, who rely on the samples for testing and as reference materials in the analytical laboratory. For that reason, most of the collection can be glimpsed only from outside the glass-walled Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies. Former Fogg Museum director Edward Forbes started the collection at the turn of the 20th century, and it has been used by Straus conservators ever since. Alongside the pigments display is the corresponding Gettens Collection of Binding Media and Varnishes (named after the museums’ first staff scientist, Rutherford John Gettens), which contains about 1,600 additional samples and objects.

Over the past five years, the pigment collection has received plenty of attention, not only by visitors but also by the media, such as The New Yorker, Atlas ObscuraFast Company, and Tom Scott’s YouTube channel.

Though it’s difficult to see the entire collection up close, a special case across from the Level 4 stairwell displays a rotating selection of pigments, which gives interested visitors a sample of the ever-popular materials.

There are plenty of other ways that visitors can experience and learn more about the pigments, as well. In fact, the collection has infused nearly every aspect of the museums, from being the focus of programming for students and scholars to being featured in merchandise in the shop.

“I’ve found that the pigment collection is a point of access to the museums and to art for a lot of people,” said Narayan Khandekar, director of the Straus Center and senior conservation scientist, who oversees the collection and curates the display case. “People love color. Even the earliest people making cave paintings chose not to use just charcoal; they used red ochres, yellow ochres. So color has been important to people right from the start—and still is today.”

A Special Case

Despite the relatively small footprint of the display case, it’s densely filled with a vibrant array of pigments and related objects.

When selecting new objects for the display, Khandekar sometimes takes inspiration from curatorial programming. For instance, he recently included historical Japanese pigments and painting materials, a nod to the exhibitions Prince Shōtoku: The Secrets Within and Japan on Paper. The Japanese materials in the case—including a rainbow of pigments inside delicate, decades-old vials and glass jars, animal-skin glue used for binding, and ink sticks—were gathered in the 1930s by Forbes, when he visited Japan to see his brother, who was serving as U.S. ambassador at the time.

Another standout is a sample of Vantablack, one of the darkest man-made materials. Vantablack absorbs virtually all light, which means that when it is applied to an object, the human eye will never be able to fully perceive its surface. A sample in the display case is shown on a crumpled piece of foil; the crumples are evident from the non-coated side of the foil but imperceptible from the front. A watch dial incorporating Vantablack is also on view.

“People are fascinated by Vantablack; sometimes they’ve come specifically to see it,” says Charlene Briggs, a receptionist for the Art Study Center, who sits opposite the display case. “It’s kind of mind-boggling that you can’t see its surface—and I try every day.”

Briggs relishes the chance to talk with visitors about the collection and to introduce new stories about individual pigments. “It’s one of those topics that, once you learn a little bit about it, it hooks you right in and you want to learn more,” she said.

Bursts of Color

The pigments have also become part of the fabric of social life at the museums, especially when it comes to student activities. The pigments have inspired brilliantly hued mocktails during the popular Student Late Night. Students are also treated to souvenirs related to the pigments, including laptop stickers in shades such as malachite, Egyptian blue, lapis lazuli, Tyrian purple, potter’s pink, and Mars yellow. These vibrant giveaways have become something of a collector’s item.


The stickers were so popular that the shop started offering pigment magnets for sale. You can also find several other colorful items there, including Kingston Trinder’s An Atlas of Rare & Familiar Colour.

Academic and professional training workshops have incorporated the pigment collection in a more formal way. For instance, because the theme of the museums’ 2019 Summer Institute for Technical Studies in Art was color, participants often made use of the collection and even attempted to create their own pigments.

Alison Cariens, conservation coordinator in the Straus Center, organizes and offers a limited number of tours for students and other small academic groups from around the region each semester. She receives about three to four serious inquiries a week from scholars and members of the public about the pigment collection, and demand for individualized tours is high.

“There are so many stories about these pigments that I could give two, or even four, tours in a row and not tell the same story twice,” Cariens said. “You learn so much about our world by appreciating the human experience over time, and by discovering how deeply people have sought color throughout history. Color isn’t a silly endeavor—it matters to humanity. I love sharing that perspective with people.”