By Brian Considine

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While the technical study of artworks in an interdisciplinary context (referred to somewhat controversially as technical art history) has been going on for centuries, the 20th century witnessed considerable efforts—led by scientists and by scholars (like Edward Forbes at Harvard)—to encourage such studies. Today technical investigations of works of art bring together art historians, archaeologists, conservation scientists, conservators, anthropologists, and scholars from other disciplines to endeavor to understand the materials and techniques used in the production of artworks and artifacts. The purpose is to develop a fuller appreciation of the context and meaning of these works.

The extent of interdisciplinary activity in the technical exploration of works of art is reflected in the ever-increasing number of meetings and exhibitions in which art historians, conservators, conservation scientists, and other experts jointly participate. Every year there are conferences such as the upcoming October 2005 ''Revival and Invention: Sculpture and Its Material Histories," being organized by the Henry Moore Institute in England and the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium (this gathering will explore the ''complex reference system that has evolved around sculpture's materials and techniques and what they tell us about the changing status of techniques and practices"). Increasingly, museums are including sections on process and technical study in their exhibitions. In addition, there are exhibitions that focus primarily on technical study. For instance, the J. Paul Getty Museum will mount an exhibit in November 2005 exploring the collaboration between art historians and conservators in the technical study and authentication of a French Renaissance cabinet. This process involved dendrochronology, radiocarbon dating, and Mars Pathfinder project. Many of these refinements were achieved through the miniaturization of electronics and the rapid growth of the computational power of personal computers.

Refinements have also made it possible to get more out of established analytical techniques—refinements that increasingly require minimal or no sampling. For example, at the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (a high intensity, high energy X-ray source), scientists working with conservators have developed a confocal XRF to obtain compositional depth profiles of historic paints. With this technique, the fluorescence signals from different paint layers can be detected separately; the effective resolution of the instrument can be as little as five to ten microns. This is part of nanotechnology—doing chemistry and physics on an ultrasmall scale, with small samples.

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The application of Raman spectroscopy to the study of art is another relatively new development that allows for the nondestructive identification of pigments and the examination, on a microscopic scale, of corrosion products. Nancy Turner of the Getty Museum and Karen Trentelman of the GCI Museum Research Laboratory have been investigating the pigment palettes and painting techniques of manuscript illuminators. Using XRF, Raman spectroscopy, and infrared reflectography (IRR) on three leaves from the devotional book The Hours of Louis XII, one recent project identified pigments and characterized the manuscript painting techniques of Jean Bourdichon, a French illuminator working in Tours in around 1500.

New technology is also being turned to the investigation of photographs. The GCI is working with the Image Permanence Institute in Rochester, New York, and the Centre de Recherche sur la Conservation des Documents Graphiques in Paris to use quantitative XRF and Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) to advance the identification of photographs and photographic processes. The aim of the project is to identify the analytical signatures of different photographic processes so that conservators will be able to identify some processes that currently cannot be identified with optical microscopes.

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New methods are enabling scientists to answer questions that have long eluded solution. For example, at the Rathgen-Forschungslabor Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin, Christian Goedicke is using optically stimulated luminescence to date unfired materials such as mortars. The luminescence in the quartz of the mortar is zeroed out during the transportation of gravel from the pit to the construction site—a fact that makes dating by dosimetry possible. The technique—used recently to date the Ingelheim residence of Charlemagne to the year 800—can also be applied to some stuccos and plasters.

New insights into artists' materials and techniques frequently come from comparisons between analytical results and period treatises on recipes or techniques and reconstructions. In October 2004, the international Art Technological Source Research study group—whose main objective is to professionalize research into art technological sources—met at the Instituut Collectie Nederland (ICN) in Amsterdam to discuss the role of source research and the use of reconstructions in art technological research. With an interest in the materials, tools, machines, sites, and techniques used in making objects, the group focuses on research with sources that include the object itself, information given directly or indirectly by the artist or artisan, and other primary, documentary information.

An example of combining technical analysis with research on primary sources is work Arlen Heginbotham of the Getty Museum has done with Michael Quick of the University of Southern California's Department of Biological Sciences to identify binding media in paint layers from a 17th-century cabinet-on-stand. Dr. Quick introduced Heginbotham to immunofluorescence microscopy (identification of proteins through antibodies), which, along with scanning electron microscopy (SEM) and other techniques, allowed for the precise identification of the materials and techniques used to create the original surface. Study of dozens of European manuscripts confirmed that the analytical findings were in accord with late 17th-century practice.

Research Resources

There is a distinguished tradition of periodicals in a variety of languages devoted to technical art history. These include Zeitschrift für Kunsttechnologie und Konservierung, The Journal of Cultural Heritage, and Techné. An impressive new addition is Art Matters, Netherlands Technical Studies in Art, dedicated to publishing interdisciplinary studies ''whereby conservators, conservation scientists, and art historians cooperate to create a deeper understanding of the making of works of art." An editorial in volume I stated, ''Art Matters wants to stimulate interdisciplinary cooperation and the development of new methodologies within the field of technical studies in art." Technologische Studien—published by the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, with articles on a wide variety of artworks—is another recent and significant addition to the bibliography of technical studies of art.

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Monographic studies are also making important contributions to the literature. Forthcoming titles include Jane Bassett's Adriaen de Vries: A Technical Study, and Coatings on Photographs—a publication effort of the Photographic Materials Group of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC)—which chronicles the historic uses of coatings on photographs, from early processes, like daguerreotypes and albumen prints, through modern processes, like Polaroid.

In a relatively short period of time, the Internet has made available significant resources for the interdisciplinary study of artworks. Conservation OnLine (palimpsest.stanford.edu), initiated in 1993 as a project of the Preservation Department of Stanford University Libraries, covers a broad spectrum of conservation topics and contains numerous links to conservation resources at other sites. In June 2002, the GCI's launch of AATA Online (www.aata.getty.edu) turned what had been a book publication into a free and searchable database, which today contains more than 100,000 abstracts of international conservation literature. There are also Web sites focused on specific topics. The International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art (INCCA)—a group of international modern art museums and related institutions formally established in 2000—is focused on building a Web site (www.incca.org) with underlying databases designed to facilitate the exchange of professional knowledge and information. INCCA partners also engage in efforts to gather information directly from artists.

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In the United States, similar efforts are under way at the Center for the Technical Study of Modern Art at Harvard, under the leadership of Carol Mancusi-Ungaro. Her goal is to assemble an archive of documents, including interviews with and records of artists, conservators, and suppliers, as well as technical literature. She is working at the Whitney Museum with conservator Pia Gottschaller, who is building on her research on Max Beckmann's painting techniques and materials to determine if the examination tools typically employed on old masters' paintings are useful to the study of modern art.

The Role of Grant Makers

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In the last four years, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, through the dedicated efforts of its program officer, Angelica Zander Rudenstine, has made major investments to strengthen science in conservation and thereby strengthen the collaboration among conservation scientists, conservators, and curators. The Mellon Foundation has, for example, endowed conservation scientist positions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It has also funded postdoctoral fellowships, equipment, and collaborative research projects. Additionally, the foundation has established three incremental professorships specifically for scientists at the three major conservation training programs in the United States: Buffalo State College, in Buffalo, New York; the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University; and the University of Delaware, in Newark, Delaware. These positions will strengthen the curricula at these institutions, where there is already a firm commitment to technical study. At Delaware, for instance, the second-semester technical study project—designed to provide familiarity and experience with benchtop, instrumental, and analytical methods—is matched with parallel studies in the humanities, emphasizing an interdisciplinary approach.

Another initiative to foster interdisciplinary study is the Kress Paired Fellowships for Research in Conservation and the History of Art and Archaeology at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. With funding from the Samuel H. Kress and the Getty foundations, an art historian and a conservator receive support for two months of field research and two months of collaboration in residence. Currently, Ann Boulton, a conservator from the Baltimore Museum of Art, is working with art historian Oliver Shell to examine Henri Matisse's casting practices to clarify the significance of his technical choices and to integrate this information into the larger context of the intellectual, economic, and social conditions in which Matisse worked.

The Getty Foundation made another contribution to the field by requiring that collections cataloguing projects receiving Getty grants include technical study. The forthcoming catalogue of French art at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, for example, has assembled a team of specialist art historians and conservators for a broad interdisciplinary study of the objects in the collection. And the Getty Foundation's museum conservation treatment grants specifically emphasize projects designed to stimulate interdisciplinary art-historical and scientific research.

Advances in analytical capabilities make possible exciting new avenues for understanding works of art, artifacts, and, most important, the cultures that produced them. Through collaborative projects with colleagues in the humanities and the sciences, conservators are developing new interpretations and meanings for artworks and cultural artifacts. The increasing sophistication of technical studies is making a difference in our understanding, appreciation, and conservation of objects, collections, and the built heritage. Our challenge is to strengthen our interdisciplinary approach so that we can work in true collaboration—rather than publishing separate and independent researches between the covers of the same book.

Brian Considine is conservator of decorative arts and sculpture at the J. Paul Getty Museum