There is a certain irony in a piece of conservation equipment being a part of the museum proper. Normally, as conservators, we seek to be as invisible as possible to preserve the intent of the artist’s work. However, this containment unit is, as tools go, almost as important as what was once held inside.
The scholarship is sketchy at best on how Le Peintre de Tournesois (The Painter of Sunflowers, Paul Gauguin, 1888 AD) came to be stored inside this unit. The best narrative our team has been able to put together is that sometime between the beginning of Solarian colonization of the inner planets (~2200 AD) and the first days of the New Wars of the Roses (~2700-2870 AD), the painting was stolen and preserved for transport to be sold illegally.
What happened next is a mystery, but the unit remained buried in the Netherlands for several thousand years. The nation was rebuilt, governments came and went, and the box remained buried until the Roberts Foundation recovered it in 50,118 during an excavation of the ruins at Aam on the Eurasian supercontinent (approx. 52.66°N, 5.09°E).
Even today, long term conservation of fine art is done with techniques reflected in this unit. Made of a copper and titanium alloy, reinforced at the molecular level with semi-biological crystalline nanomachines that fill and maintain cohesion between metal panels even without additional energy input, this box was built to last at least a thousand years. That it survived more than 37000 years unattended is not only astonishing, but would be laughable if our team hadn’t been the one to open it in our specially built cleanroom.
Inside the containment unit, our team found the painting set in materials designed not to harm wood, canvas, or the paints of the traditional era. Most interesting in such an old unit was the presence of an internal atmosphere of almost 100% argon. Argon is an inert, non-toxic gas that has been used in modern conservation for hundreds of years; but that we found actual evidence that this process was used, even if only once, on ancient Earth, is of historical importance in understanding how art was revered before our time.
At times, our team finds that the task of preserving our shared heritage is a daunting one. There are tens of thousands of years of history, thousands of years of relative Dark Ages, and no end for the raw, unsorted date rolling into our databases. However, once in a while, when the stars are aligned just right, we get a present from our ancestors telling us “Have that one on me. You earned this.”