By Giacomo Chiari
Interdisciplinarity is one of today's most used—and possibly misused—words. It suggests that a problem is sufficiently complex that it requires expertise in several disciplines to be solved. When dealing with the conservation of cultural heritage, interdisciplinary approaches are considered essential. Knowledge from such diverse professions as art historian, museum curator, conservator, architect, archaeologist, and scientist all contribute to the work of conservation.
Typically, individuals working in these professions are associated with institutions that do not necessarily collaborate with one another. Excessive specialization and the absence of a common language exacerbate the situation. Even in the very few organizations in the world that are large enough to include a broad range of disciplines devoted to cultural heritage, functions are usually separated into well-defined departments as the most natural way to manage a complex institution. This separation re-creates, on a smaller scale, the separation of disciplines that exists in the field at large. Still, the advantages of cooperation among these fields are so evident that professionals often seek the help of colleagues within their institution or beyond it.
Several disciplines are intrinsically part of scientific work in conservation. Using a variety of instruments, scientists study the material aspect of cultural heritage, revealing the hidden stories that each object, document, building, or site from the past has to tell us. This aspect of the work—referred to as archaeometry (broadly defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "the application of modern scientific and technical methods to the interpretation of archaeological remains")—is only one side of the coin. The other very important part of such work is determining the causes and modality of the processes of deterioration of cultural heritage material and, subsequently, the means of mitigating or slowing those processes. In this endeavor, the scientist's natural partner is the conservator. Given this dual activity, scientists working in conservation might be better termed cultural heritage materials scientists dealing with archaeometry and/or conservation science.
Because of the intrinsic multidisciplinary nature of cultural heritage materials science, no single scientist can master more than a limited selection of the scientific techniques or analytical methods demanded by conservation. Therefore, it is natural that when investigating a painting, for example, more than one scientist would be involved. One scientist might use techniques for analysis of the inorganic components of the pigments, while another might study the binding media using organic materials analysis. This kind of cooperation is based on each scientist's distinct expertise.
Another type of collaboration may take place among institutions that have scientists with similar expertise. Even if an organization has a large scientific staff and a comprehensive set of instruments, it will still not have the capability to tackle very complex problems. For this reason, from its earliest days, the GCI Science department has sought to cultivate partnerships in many of its major research undertakings. These partnerships have been successful when the partners have expertise in similar areas of research, as well as comparable resources; they can therefore share operational tasks, each significantly contributing to the common goal with its expertise and tools. Successful partnerships have also been achieved when the partners have very different but nonetheless complementary expertise and/or resources; in these instances, the partners share a common goal—one that can only be attained by cooperative and combined effort.
Another important means of cooperation involves the simple sharing of ideas. One way the GCI pursues this goal is by conducting both resident scholar and graduate intern programs. As part of the scholars program, the GCI hosts scientists who are recognized as leaders in their fields with the objective of exchanging ideas and experiences. Their use of the GCI's laboratories and their interaction with the Institute's staff may contribute to the solution of problems they have proposed. The interns come to work on specific projects with GCI staff, acquiring precious experience while contributing to their own work.
Several GCI Science research projects currently under way illustrate the principles of partnership. In each project, the GCI's partnership with one or more external organizations is not incidental but at the very core of the work.
GCI Scientific Partnerships
The GCI's Organic Materials in Wall Paintings project involves the collaboration of an international group of conservation science laboratories to develop an analytical protocol for the study of organic materials used in wall paintings. The project, in part, grows out of the widespread belief that very few frescoes produced in the past were executed in a pure fresco technique. On the contrary, painters may have added very small amounts of organic substances (i.e., milk, egg, gums, etc.) in order to increase the workability of the material, to extend its working time, or to obtain special effects (the so-called velature). To know how to recognize these elusive materials is important both for the history of art and for determining the most appropriate manner to conserve these works by cleaning them in a way that will not remove original and intentional layers. The analytical task is extremely difficult, since one has to find, for example, if perhaps a small drop of milk was added to a pot of paint centuries ago—a length of time that may have substantially altered its composition. The additional challenge is to do this (amid many possible subsequent contaminations) in a reliable, simple, and inexpensive way—without taking samples, if possible.
To come even close to achieving these goals, one should test all the techniques presently available and select those that best meet the analytical requirements. Since no single organization can accomplish this task, more than 10 research groups have joined with the GCI to address this issue, each bringing to the task their own expertise and equipment. Several of the analytical techniques being tested were developed by the participants, making them the experts in their use. Since the goal is to compare techniques in order to determine the best possible protocols, the instrumentation needs to be applied by the most experienced users, so that the results are not affected by a less-than-adequate application.
The GCI is also engaged in a collaborative effort to study modern paint. Modern painters often discarded more traditional, well-established painting techniques in favor of more expressive and direct ways of communication, without necessarily being concerned about the durability of the work of art. Among the new materials are common house paints, which often utilize pigments and binding media different from those in traditional paint media. To be able to identify, both for authentication and for conservation purposes, the large number of commercially available artist paints and house paints—and their deterioration products—a collaboration was established between the GCI, Tate in London, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The extensive exchange of expertise on complex analytical procedures and the ability to divide up the enormous amount of work to be done have allowed a project of this scale to be undertaken.
Another area of GCI scientific research being conducted in partnership addresses a series of questions involving museum lighting. How do we balance a museum visitor's desire to view a light-sensitive work of art, such as an old master drawing, with a museum's mandate to protect masterpieces from conditions that might cause damage—such as too much light for too long a period of time? Do we need to develop new light sources for illuminating delicate works, or can existing light sources be modified to make them less damaging? And can we do a better job of monitoring the effects of light on fragile works of art?
The scope of the museum lighting project is broad— investigating new lighting sources such as leds with intrinsic three-band character; designing filters to emulate the three-band concept on existing lamp architecture; examining the benefits of anoxic environments to reduce photochemical deterioration; and testing risk management methodologies based on more sophisticated monitoring techniques.
Realistically, a project of this ambition could only be undertaken collaboratively. An initial cooperative effort was established with Carnegie Mellon University, which helped the GCI build a "microfading tester," a device that concentrates a strong beam of light on a very small portion of the object, causing it to fade in a controlled manner without causing unnecessary damage to the overall object. The emitted spectrum is recorded at the same time, producing all the relevant data for both regulating the amount of light and filtering the radiation responsible for damage when the object is exhibited. The design and manufacture of proper filters are being addressed by a collaborative agreement with the University of Texas at El Paso. The university, in turn, has set up a working relationship with a local company to manufacture and test the filters for adaptation in the museum environment. In the future, for each masterpiece, it may be possible to have customized filters that will allow visitors to see the work of art in the best possible light, while significantly limiting damage to a greater extent than we can accomplish today.
Another GCI scientific area where complementary expertise is part of the partnership formula is the Institute's new research on the use of axial tomography—CT scans—on small bronze objects for analytical purposes. While the GCI is periodically required to analyze objects from the J. Paul Getty Museum using X-ray analysis, until recently the Institute did not have the full range of experience and equipment necessary to achieve the higher level of analytical results offered by CT scans. By partnering with the University of Bologna in Italy, with its expertise in executing axial tomography, the GCI was able to adapt its current X-radiography equipment to begin to do full CT scans on medium-size bronzes from the Getty collection. The ultimate goal of this collaboration is to develop a system capable of performing CT scans on large bronze objects. This is a goal that no one has yet achieved at a resolution that would make a significant difference in the study of such objects.
Transforming a "Good Idea"
The Science department at the GCI practices collaboration in a variety of ways: with art historians, museum curators, and conservators on museum objects; with architects, archaeologists, and conservators on site projects; with other institutions, such as museum scientific laboratories and universities where complementary but different experiences and know-how are present; occasionally with very large scientific facilities that possess expertise in the use of synchrotron or neutron radiation but have no conservation experience; and, of course, within the Getty itself.
Although at the core of scientific research there is always a good idea, possibly conceived by a single person, the advantages of sharing ideas with colleagues from the beginning of research are enormous. Apart from the sense of community that is created, sharing ideas may result in positive modifications, correlations to other fields, and unforeseen amplification and practical applications.
Furthermore, experiments that can test the hypotheses generated from that idea—and, ultimately, transform the good idea into a law of nature or a new instrument or an analytical procedure—can today be carried out only by a team of well-trained, collaborating scientists. In the implementation of critical research, the romantic concept of the scientist who works alone in his or her study is no longer valid.
The concessions that the proud, lonely scientist has to make to the complexity of the modern world are more than compensated for by the incredible achievements that modern science and technology have attained in the domain of conservation and archaeometry. We should be both encouraged and challenged by the results, keeping in mind that our ultimate goal is a deeper understanding of works of art and their conservation for future generations.
Giacomo Chiari is chief scientist at the Getty Conservation Institute.