Art

The Harvard Library Houses the Rarest Collection of Colors You Can Find

No prize for guessing where “mummy brown” comes from…

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The Harvard Library Houses the Rarest Collection of Colors You Can Find

No prize for guessing where “mummy brown” comes from…

Centuries ago way before there was Pantone, if you wanted to achieve a particular hue, you had to hike all the way to a mineral deposit or trespass a mummy tomb to harvest pigment samples. Now, these ancient pigment samples are being preserved in the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies at the Harvard Art Museums for scientific analysis, becoming benchmarks in comparing against unknown specimens.

The director of the facility, Narayan Khandekar, explained that every color has its own history and story. In order to research and catalog color samples, Khandekar and his team utilize pioneering science technologies such as “Raman spectroscopy, mass spectrometry, gas chromatography, and electron microscopy to map out the precise chemical composition of a pigment.” Read the excerpt below to find out the story behind some of the rarest and most intriguing colors in the collection, or head over to Fast Co. Design to read the full feature.

Dragon’s Blood
“It has a great name, but it’s not from dragons. [The bright red pigment] is from the rattan palm.”

Cadmium Yellow
“Cadmium yellow was introduced in the mid 19th century. It’s a bright yellow that many impressionists used. Cadmium is a heavy metal, very toxic. In the early 20th century, cadmium red was introduced. You find these pigments used in industrial processes. Up until the 1970s, Lego bricks had cadmium pigment in them.”

Mummy Brown
“People would harvest mummies from Egypt and then extract the brown resin material that was on the wrappings around the bodies and turn that into a pigment. It’s a very bizarre kind of pigment, I’ve got to say, but it was very popular in the 18th and 19th centuries.”

Annatto
“The lipstick plant—a small tree, Bixa orellana, native to Central and South America—produces annatto, a natural orange dye. Seeds from the plant are contained in a pod surrounded with a bright red pulp. Currently, annatto is used to color butter, cheese, and cosmetics.”

Harvard Art Museums
32 Quincy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138

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