According to new research, a special smell test can help museums sniff out artifacts on the verge of irreversible degradation. UK chemists say their method could help conservators rescue everything from plastic sculptures to cellulose film to decomposing paper.

In a recent roll-out of their methods, the researchers — based at University College London and the University of Strathclyde — even followed their noses to the Tate, where they tested three decades-old plastic sculptures.

The testing technique starts with a particular type of chemicals found in the air: VOCs, or volatile organic compounds. VOCs are all around us, and they produce countless familiar smells. Formaldehyde and benzene are two well-known examples. Others come from automobile exhaust, solvents, and even human breath. Read more