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From Lima to Canton and Beyond:
An AI-aided Heritage Materials Research Platform for Studying Globalisation through Art

From the late 18th century, inspired by the Enlightenment movement, European colonial powers such as Britain and Spain were collecting information from around the world. Maps and charts, as well as scientific drawings of flora and fauna, were commissioned, and local artists were often employed to draw and paint these. Several Spanish scientific expeditions, such as the Royal Botanical Expedition to the Viceroyalty of New Granada (Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela today), led by José Celestino Mutis from 1783 to 1816, hired local artists, such as Francisco Javier Cortés to provide the illustrations.

Botanical paintings following European conventions of scientific drawing were also commissioned from Chinese export artists in Canton (Guangzhou, China) by the Royal Horticultural Society and the Royal Botanical Gardens in London, and were painted on Whatman papers sent from London. Similarly, during this period, the East Indian Company was actively employing Chinese and Indian artists to paint flora and fauna in South East Asia and India respectively. These cultural encounters have often resulted in hybrid artistic practices.










Examples of Chinese botanical paintings from the collections at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew

By about 1818, in the context of the coming independence of Peru, watercolours of Peruvian subjects are documented in Lima, the capital city of Peru. The earliest are associated with Francisco Javier Cortés, who was joined by his presumed pupil, Francisco "Pancho" Fierro in the 1820s. By the 1830s, watercolours by Fierro, his followers, and imitators became widespread, and were eventually produced in the thousands, with the phenomenon tapering off around 1850-60. Similar ethnographic drawings are found in Colombia and Ecuador. 


In the meantime, trade in Chinese export paintings from Canton flourished in the late 18th to the 19th century. These paintings were often sold to visitors as souvenirs, and typically depicted contemporary life in China; traditional costumes, trades, boats, birds, insects and plants. Costume paintings of Peruvian types are also found in albums with provenances and artistic styles which suggest that they were made in painting studios in Canton. These works, produced in north-western South America and in Canton from 1780 to 1850, are connected to a complex web of social, political, artistic, geographic, economic, and technological phenomena, all of which affected the motives for their creation, the materials from which they were made, the means of their dispersal and preservation, and the lives of the people who made, sold, bought, and collected them.

Chinese paintings from the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew

Chinese Export Paintings of Peruvian subjects from the Lilly Library, Indiana University

The aims of this project are:

  • to use this study as a lens to reveal details of global trade and information exchange networks among the Americas, Asia and Europe ca. 1780-1850.

  • to streamline the data collection and interpretation processes and open the results to researchers and audiences in the humanities.

Addressing the Challenge

This project focusses on a large group of ethnographic watercolours, and selected scientific watercolours (e.g. maps and botanical drawings), made for export to Europe or North America by local artists in north-western Latin America and Asia. These are now found in widely dispersed public collections in the US and UK. Pigments, dyes and paper are commodities that were traded extensively throughout history; their identity and the way they are used are often traceable to their geographic and cultural origins. This period also saw the synthesis of new pigments, especially in Europe, making it easier to date an object using these pigments.

In September 2021, the ISAAC Mobile Lab team completed the first half of the data collection, taking our PRISMS spectral imaging equipment, OCT, Raman and XRF to analyse collections from China, Southeast Asia and India which are currently in the collections of the British Library, the National Archives, the Royal Geographical Society and Kew Gardens. 

During April 2023, the ISAAC Mobile Lab team visited our US Partner Organisations at the Library of Congress, Indiana University's Lilly Library, the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Asian Art, and Yale Art Gallery, to collect data on watercolours from Peru, Chinese export paintings of Peruvian subjects, and Chinese paintings for domestic consumption in the late 18th century to mid-19th century- see our blog for further details.


Advanced imaging and material analysis techniques, used by heritage scientists and conservators to detect, identify and understand the composition of artworks/heritage items, create large data sets that require expert processing and interpretation (hence, creating a barrier to entry and use by non-scientists). This project aims to streamline the data collection and interpretation processes and open the results to researchers and audiences in the humanities by (1) advancing an AI-assisted method of data analysis, (2) providing an online, linked open data platform for the results and their interpretation, and (3) demonstrating the impact of the collected and interpreted data for humanities research in this large-scale humanities-led project.


Kogou, S., Lee, L., Shahtahmassebi, G. and Liang, H., 2020. A New Approach to the Interpretation of XRF Spectral Imaging Data Using Neural Networks. X-Ray Spectrometry

Our latest publication “From Lima to Canton and Beyond: Mobile and Digital Research Infrastructure for Closing the Gap between Resource-rich and Resource-poor Organisations”, Studies in Conservation, will be presented at the IIC Congress in Lima, September 2024:

Publication Abstract
Access to research infrastructure for heritage science is the best way of narrowing the collections knowledge gap between resource-rich and resource-poor cultural institutions. Here we demonstrate a novel workflow that streamlines the use of a mobile laboratory for data collection (MOLAB) followed by a digital platform for data processing, analysis and interpretation (DIGILAB). The data collection and processing are taken care of by heritage science specialists, while the data analysis and interpretation can be performed collaboratively with conservators and curators. MOLAB with specialist personnel and mobile scientific instruments can sometimes be aided by in-house fixed laboratory (FIXLAB) equipment and personnel from resource-rich institutions to assist the resource-poor institutions if their collection can be hosted by the resource-rich institutions for analysis. The aim is to widen participation in the adoption of heritage science and material analysis in the understanding and conservation of collections, while ensuring high-quality, efficient and reliable data acquisition, processing, analysis and interpretation. The approach taken in this project combines access to various research infrastructure platforms to achieve extra benefit through adding further expert-assisted data analysis and interpretation capabilities, enabled by a new digital platform for data processing and visualisation.

uk project partners

US project partners

uk personnel

Principal Investigator: Professor Haida Liang, NTU

Co-investigator: Dr Lucia Pereira Pardo, The National Archives

Dr Sotiria Kogou, NTU 
Dr C. S. Cheung, NTU

Dr Florence Liggins, NTU

Luke Butler, NTU

Dr Lora Angelova, The National Archives

Professor Mark Nesbitt, Royal Botanical Gardens Kew
Fiona Davison, Royal Horticultural Society

Dr Catherine Souch, Royal Geographical Society

us personnel

Project Director: Dr Marcus Burke, Hispanic Society of America 
Dr Blythe McCarthy, Smithsonian Institution

Dr Matthew Clarke, Smithsonian Institution

Dr Fenella France, Library of Congress

Amanda Satorius, Library of Congress

Meghan Hill, Library of Congress

Cindy Connelly Ryan, Library of Congress

Erika Dowell, Indiana University

Douglas Sanders, Indiana University
Dr Natalie Majluf, Independent Scholar

Latest News
  • follow on grant has been approved on this project, allowing dissemination and engagement activities which showcase the benefits of interdisciplinary research. As part of these activities, we will be able demonstrate how scientific analysis of materials brings a different perspective to historical research.

  • In June 2024 we visited the US to participate in a series of dissemination workshops and symposia at some of our US Partner Organisations- the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Asian Art and the Library of Congress in Washington DC, and the Hispanic Society Museum & Library in New York. 

  • In September 2024 we will be presenting our most recent paper at the IIC Congress in Lima (see Publications section below).

LoC seminar_everyone.jpg

The ISAAC Research team presenting at the Library of Congress Symposium "From Lima to Canton: New Digital Tools for Painting Analysis" Tuesday 11 June 2024

project advisory board

Professor Felix Driver, Professor of Human Geography, Royal Holloway UoL & RGS
Dr Henry Noltie, Independent Scholar
Rose Mitchell, Map Archivist, The National Archives
Dr Lucia Burgio, Senior Scientist, Victoria & Albert Museum
Dr John Hessler, Curator, Library of Congress
Dr Barbara Anderson, Independent Scholar

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