The Science in the Art
A Discussion about Collections Research

Watch a pubic discussion by this same panel presented at the Getty Center

TERRY DRAYMAN-WEISSER is director of Conservation and Technical Research at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. She has been involved with training conservators from Iraq, especially in treatment of ancient, flood-damaged Nimrud ivories, and is consulting on a project to establish a conservation training program. She recently received the ICOM-US Service Award for her Iraq work.

MELANIE GIFFORD brings a background in art history and painting conservation to her role as research conservator for painting technology at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Her research considers the artistic decision-making process, with a particular focus on Dutch and Flemish painters. She also trains conservation students, interns, and postgraduate fellows in microscopy and technical studies.

CHRIS MCGLINCHEY is the Sally and Michael Gordon conservation scientist at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. He works with the conservation staff to provide technical support on the preservation and treatment of the museum’s collection. In January he received a 2009 Heritage Preservation Award for Distinction in Scholarship and Conservation from the College Art Association.

They spoke with DAVID BOMFORD, associate director for collections at the J. Paul Getty Museum and currently the Museum's acting director, and KAREN TRENTELMAN, a senior scientist with the GCI.

DAVID BOMFORD: Each of you has worked in science and conservation in different ways. Perhaps we could start by talking about the changes in roles within the museum that you’ve seen over the years. I recall that when I was a young restorer at the National Gallery in London, we were not supposed to use the library. Curators thought it was their exclusive preserve, and restorers were not expected to actually study books. The exclusivity of the curators in those days was remarkable and certainly not helpful. Those barriers don't exist now, but they certainly were there once upon a time.

MELANIE GIFFORD: Many changes are reflected in the administrative structure of museums today. At the National Gallery of Art, conservation is a division parallel to the curatorial division, and both are represented in planning and policy making. More and more often, collaborative teams are assembled at the start of an exhibition or research project, which fosters communication among members of the team. It is essential to bring this collaborative approach into the training of scientists, art historians, and conservators. The more these different specialties develop a common language and work together to develop the questions to be researched, the more fruitful the research will be. At the NGA, our postgraduate fellows in conservation pursue their research with advice from a mentor outside their own department—conservators work with a scientist, science department fellows work with a conservator.

TERRY DRAYMAN-WEISSER: I have seen a big change over time. There used to be an accepted division between curator and conservator. The curator had the responsibility for programmatic decisions—exhibitions and loans—and the conservator handled preservation of the collections. Sometimes the conservator would go to the curator with a suggestion for something to include in a show. Today the curator consults with the conservator at the beginning of the planning process for an exhibition or catalogue. It used to be a question as to whether a catalogue would include technical information, but today it's assumed that it will be there in some form.

CHRIS MCGLINCHEY: Nowadays conservators and curators work more closely together and utilize some of the same resources. At the Museum of Modern Art in New York, every major exhibition catalogue has included an essay from the conservation department as a separate section, or has information integrated into the body of the text.

GIFFORD: It's wonderful that technical essays are included in a great many exhibitions. Even so, I would like to see a day when technical essays aren't segregated—when technical research, like iconographic research or archival research, is simply woven into the fabric of art history. It's part of the whole dialogue.

MCGLINCHEY: Exactly. Ann Temkin's catalogue for her exhibition Color Chart—an exhibition that showed how the mass-produced color chart has impacted artists—wove information from the conservation department into the fabric of her text. There was no separate section.

KAREN TRENTELMAN: Where do the scientists fit into the hierarchy of curators and conservators? Can we get to the point where scientists have an equal voice at the table?

DRAYMAN-WEISSER: It's evolving. There is still a little bit of a silo effect. Eventually the goal is to have projects that interweave everything. Right now we're getting used to each other as equal players. I also want to add in another player—the museum educator. That person is really the connection to the public. We may work with the scientist, we may work with the curator, but then the technical information gets into an exhibition because the educator is saying the public is interested in it. This encourages the museum director and the curator to include a lot of the conservation or scientific information in the public presentation.

Melanie Gifford

GIFFORD: In institutions with a science department, the familiarity of colleagues means that scientists can be woven integrally into the research process. This is harder when an outside scientist joins the team. The conservator then takes on the traditional role of mediator—bringing the question from the art historian to the scientist, and then bringing the results back and interpreting them for the art historian—which is a very inefficient process. The more each specialist's training involves experience in the other disciplines, the better. The goal is not to turn us into multitaskers—people who can do mass spectrometry and art history simultaneously. We need the scientist doing mass spectrometry to be familiar with the questions an art historian might ask and to be comfortable phrasing the findings in a way that is meaningful to an art historian. Similarly, an art historian has to have enough experience looking at paint cross sections to ask intelligent questions and perhaps even to debate interpretations.

TRENTELMAN: You're talking about the blurring of boundaries for projects that stem from art-historical questions. What about questions driven by treatment or conservation? How does the interaction occur in those projects?

MCGLINCHEY: For scientists working in the museum environment, it's best to trust the judgment of the senior conservators in identifying and prioritizing areas of research. These are the people who have identified fundamental problems of conservation materials and techniques. This is as opposed to students trying to master conservation. They have yet to know the difference between their own limitations and the intrinsic limitations of a material. Since senior conservators can articulate these boundaries more succinctly, research can be focused in areas that would benefit the largest audience.

BOMFORD: But let's be clear. Whatever question is asked—whether it's art-historical or about authenticity or conservation—it all reduces down to an understanding of the materials and structure of a work of art. That is what we're all trying to discover. Once we understand materials and structure, we begin to answer all those questions.

GIFFORD: A new research direction is evolving in which we not only think of the structure and the materials of a work of art—and their inherent characteristics—but also seek to understand that the characteristics of materials change over time, whether through environmental degradation or a natural aging process. When analyzing a material, it's important to recognize where that material is in its life cycle. A specific compound will not always be diagnostic for a specific material. That's a fundamental change in the analytical approach.

DRAYMAN-WEISSER: I would divide the scientific work into short-term and long-term. As a conservator doing a treatment, I may have an urgent short-term need. I may need to know if an object contains zinc or whether it's brass or bronze. But in the long term, I may need a new treatment developed, or I may need a broader understanding of something that requires collection of data. These needs begin to conflict when there’s one scientist and limited time. I found that once we had an in-house scientist, there were many needs expressed by the conservators for immediate information about objects, as well as for long-term research. The curators—having a scientist in-house—began to think about long-term projects they had put on the back burner. Suddenly we had a scientist with a work list of fifty or sixty items. We had to sit down together and prioritize that list. When we had no in-house scientist, I was the person to develop the research plan for a project and hope that I had made the right decisions bringing in outside scientists to do the work. I was the person who interpreted the data for the curator. Now it's wonderful to have an in-house person who can take some of that role—who, in the most effective way, can help design that project, identify the best people to do it, and share the role of the interpreter of information.

TRENTELMAN: Could you each comment on the relative support within your institution for research that is exhibition driven, versus something that would be longer-term, such as developing a new treatment? Is that research adequately supported by your institution—or does it require partnering with universities?

GIFFORD: The NGA has a well-established scientific research department that pursues two tracks of research—research into materials and techniques for conservation, and research into the materials and techniques of art objects. But a diverse research program like this isn't possible in most settings: there simply aren't enough staff. In many institutions the best way to pursue fundamental research is in partnership with academic scientists. That said, the needs of the field must be communicated effectively. For an academic program of fundamental research to be relevant, conservators and/or conservation scientists in the museum setting must serve as active research partners and interpreters of the data.

BOMFORD: And it's slightly serendipitous, in that what normally drives the process in a museum is an exhibition. Exhibitions concentrate our minds on a specific group of works of art, or on the need for conservation. If you're taking a painting off the wall to conserve it only once in a century, that is the moment you do the analysis and examination. Or you may have a concentrated research project, such as the Rembrandt Research Project, to focus attention on a particular oeuvre or a particular artist. There isn't some great systematic process going on worldwide.

MCGLINCHEY: Exhibitions are one driving factor, but we also examine the collection to identify areas of research. For example, resin-coated [RC] prints are difficult to exhibit, and there are no conservation-quality adhesives suitable for mounting them. That's a project useful to anyone needing to display RC prints. And this is where having an in-house scientist helps advance outside collaborations with people in industry and academia. I don't know how efficiently that would proceed with just a photography conservator contacting researchers at other organizations.

DRAYMAN-WEISSER: Many of our institutions are public institutions. How do you show that there's public value to what we do? The more we can demonstrate that value, the more support we can get. If you create something that can be presented to the public and the public responds positively, then there is more support from the entire institution for what you're doing. What's regrettable is that sometimes our most urgent needs—developing new techniques for preservation of works of art—sit on the sideline because they're not necessarily viewed as important for the program of the institution, it's often an expensive process, and it often involves bringing in university or industrial scientists. That's when we have to start applying for grants—and then it's a question of competing with other institutional grant priorities.

MCGLINCHEY: One thing to consider is how science fits into the administrative structure of each institution. That automatically identifies what hurdles exist. At the Museum of Modern Art, science is embedded in conservation, and that works partly because the staff is not large. Fortunately, the potential problem of feeling unrepresented at higher levels in the administrative structure doesn't apply, because I have a department head and director who both advocate science. I'm frequently called into discussions at the appropriate time. But you can't count on that elsewhere.

BOMFORD: We have to acknowledge that the role of conservation across the world is diminishing. Over the last thirty years, conservators were very influential and had a seat at the top table in many museums. Those seats are getting fewer. There are important museums at which conservation is regarded as less and less important. Conservators still do fundamental conservation, but they're not making decisions at the highest level as they used to—and, in some museums, as they still do. In many museums, it's never been important. You have conservation projects in major European museums that are discussed without anyone's even knowing who the conservator is going to be. Conservators are given their orders by the curator, who will tell them exactly what the result should be. This, to me, is very, very disturbing.

GIFFORD: And this is why the professional organizations representing the interests and priorities of conservation need to work with organizations like the American Association of Museum Directors [AAMD] and the International Council of Museums [ICOM] to keep those priorities at the top of the list.

DRAYMAN-WEISSER: When I was at the London IIC [International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works] meeting, several conservators from European museums told me, "We feel that we are being sidelined." It is a frightening trend. In the United States, the American Association of Museums [AAM] and the American Association of Museum Directors need to be convinced to support the inclusion of conservation in decision making. We have to fight hard to ensure that real conservation priorities are included in the AAM accreditation guidelines. Museums will have to strive for high conservation standards or lose their accreditation. Something to remember is that people—and museums—tend to go where the money is, so funding organizations need to be aware of how they can be part of the solution. They can make funding available, taking into consideration how a museum deals with conservation needs. I'm thinking specifically about the IMLS [Institute of Museum and Library Services] insisting that there be a conservation survey before funding is requested. Many museums weren’t bothering with surveys at all—and all of a sudden, every museum was conducting surveys in order to be able to meet those requirements. It changed entirely how museums operate.

MCGLINCHEY: Fortunately, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has been steadfast in helping the profession advance by establishing positions for scientists at institutions throughout the nation. Mellon has fostered dialogue among science, curatorial, and conservation communities. The current Mellon-funded project I am involved with focuses on the curatorial, conservation, and scientific examination of the Thomas Walther collection of photographs. The fruits of that comprehensive three-year program will clearly benefit many and will demonstrate to those who have abandoned an integrated approach that they are going down the wrong path.

DRAYMAN-WEISSER: I agree completely. And as more institutions have scientists that have been paid for with outside support, the museum sees it as positive—not as a drain on resources. They realize what science can contribute and begin to depend on it. Ironically, at the institutions where positions have been endowed, the scientist has one of the most secure positions in the museum.

BOMFORD: With the proliferation of ever-more-sophisticated analytical methods, are we simply answering the same questions in more detail, or are new questions being answered?

MCGLINCHEY: When I started at MoMA, I explored portable X-ray fluorescence methods because we were going to be in a series of temporary work spaces during a construction project, and I didn't want to lug around a large XRF. I had known that the handheld technology had advanced and was worth looking into. But it was only after I put the equipment into practice that I got a sense of how useful it was to have something so portable. One could argue the equipment is not as sensitive as other spectroscopic methods, but it is good enough to answer many questions satisfactorily, and being so portable is what makes it so powerful. It really does open up your eyes.

GIFFORD: Imaging technology is an area of new research that expands the questions we ask. I particularly appreciate coordination between imaging techniques, where spatial resolution gives information over the entire work of art, and point analysis techniques give detailed results. This supports a trend toward taking samples only when it is essential.

MCGLINCHEY: This is a trend that we see more and more—scientific methods dovetailing with one another. We no longer have a single method that someone tries to argue can do everything. That is clearly a myth.

DRAYMAN-WEISSER: As technology and techniques advance, we realize we have more capacity to answer questions than we ever thought possible. It also poses new areas for research.

BOMFORD: What would each of you have to say regarding the ways in which you see new technologies enhancing future treatments and approaches to conservation?

Terry Drayman-Weisser

MCGLINCHEY: Today we are closer to identifying the environmental parameter that becomes the Achilles' heel of a particular object. While we might understand the composition of each material in an object, we sometimes neglect to take into account the interaction those materials and method of manufacture have within a work. It is the interaction of these processes that sets up the potential vulnerabilities of these materials. This is where advanced technologies are going to yield a lot of information that helps with issues of preservation.

GIFFORD: Yes—the context must inform advanced analytical research. Even experienced scientists who are new to conservation research may not recognize the complex interactions between composite materials and the environment. Research on a pure material taken out of context could identify an irrelevant Achilles' heel and suggest preventive techniques that are not, in fact, appropriate.

An important area of research is degradation processes. One example is the degradation of oil paints and the formation of metal soaps. The exact circumstances under which certain metal soaps develop aren't yet understood. It's important to understand how degradation products differ from metal soaps that occur naturally as oil paint cures. That means looking at the curing process through the different stages of its history and under different circumstances and identifying analytical protocols for each of these circumstances.

BOMFORD: The scientist can discover the fundamental degradation processes, but that has to become part of the decision-making process within an institution and be translated into exhibition, loan, and other curatorial policies. And that's where you might run into conflicts. Interpretation of results is key. The scientist and the conservator need to explain to the museum world the real implications of these things and not be unnecessarily alarmist.

DRAYMAN-WEISSER: Because of the economy, most of us are experiencing challenges to our recommendations. We're asked, "Is that really necessary?" and "Can you prove it?" In response, we should continually examine our standards and be able to support what we are saying through scientific research—but there is often resistance in museums, regardless of the findings, due to inconvenience or cost. We have to communicate that this is an evolving process, and we must avoid untested hard-and-fast guidelines—because the first time we alter them, we've lost credibility, creating an excuse for throwing all guidelines out the door.

MCGLINCHEY: It's not about throwing out guidelines. It's about revising guidelines. This is the role of science in conservation—providing the data to build new guidelines on. Some, we hope, will be economically advantageous to implement.

GIFFORD: As new data comes out, it must be interpreted to the institution's administration: "This is the significance of the new data—and a year from now there will be more data." We need to make clear that science is an ongoing process—always developing new information and perspectives and refining judgments.

TRENTELMAN: What needs in conservation science would each of you like to see receive greater attention?

Chris McGlinchey

MCGLINCHEY: Generally, I would say preventive conservation issues for the storage and exhibition of art. Change is greatest for things that are young, so it's a major issue for contemporary art. In order to prioritize, we need to distinguish between the change we can control and the change we can't control. The fundamental science required to provide that information is large and could spawn several research careers.

DRAYMAN-WEISSER: We need more research on preventive conservation for storage. Conservators' recommendations in museums are complicated by the sustainability issues on the horizon, as well as by the current economy. There's a lot of pushback to some of the standards that we use right now, and we really need solid scientific research to understand how already aged and multicomponent materials are going to react. We need reliable data to guide us in putting collection materials into the most cost-effective storage systems that give the best chance for preservation.

GIFFORD: An object is usually available for examination for only a short period. It's important to develop widely available examination methods that gather large amounts of data that can continue to be mined in the future. XRF mapping, for example, offers the possibility of storing elemental data so that spectra for specific points on the object can be generated later. Capturing a hyperspectral image set offers the same promise, storing data for later analysis of reflectance spectra. These methods promise spatially resolved analysis over the surface of an object; analysis that gives spatially resolved data for layers below the surface as well will further reduce the need for sampling art objects.

TRENTELMAN: That brings up another point. We have to be concerned not only about the preservation of objects but also about the preservation of the knowledge and data that we're generating. We face challenges in preserving that—not from one generation to the next, but from one generation of our computer operating systems to the next. The challenge is to be able to preserve this data in a form that we can go back to, so that we can limit the number of times that we have to return to the object. My wish list would include increased work in statistical analysis and data mining.

BOMFORD: In terms of traditional analysis of works of art, with old master paintings, pigments have been the most important thing—but that's because pigments are what we can analyze most straightforwardly. Actually, the medium is equally important but much more difficult to analyze. It's only been in relatively recent times that we've had successful and reliable medium analysis. There’s still an awful lot about medium analysis we don't understand. I think there are analytical techniques that we are not yet capable of doing that will yield important information. In imaging techniques alone, we are seeing things now that were simply invisible ten or fifteen years ago.

GIFFORD: One issue is that as techniques such as infrared reflectography and XRF become widely available to nonspecialists, we cannot always depend on the results being reliable and comparable. For many research techniques, it is essential to agree on protocols for consistent and validly comparable analyses.

MCGLINCHY:Melanie's point is exactly right about protocols and standardized methods for collection. That's the only way you will be able to go back to old data and reexamine it or apply any type of statistical analysis. It's essential. And with "new media," an art form whose preservation relies heavily on data migration, we have to be sure artistic qualities can be presented in the future by methods that have yet to be developed. I also think education on conservation issues must be integrated into the museum's agenda.

GIFFORD: There needs to be overlap in the training of conservators, scientists, and art historians. Conservators need to be able to speak an art-historical language and also to understand how science is carried out. One of the single most important areas that still needs work is the training of conservation scientists. Academic training in a discipline like organic chemistry, combined with a postdoctoral museum fellowship, offers exemplary training for conservation scientists. But the transition from the academic environment—where students rarely focus on art research because of the funding priorities in their labs—to the museum world can be abrupt. If future conservation scientists could partner with museums during their academic training, even for short-term projects, it would open them to the questions we're asking.

DRAYMAN-WEISSER: In my experience, if a university receives funds for students to do research relating to art materials, it will be done. If not, it's not likely to happen.

TRENTELMAN: Are there other things the conservation community can be doing to broaden the notion of science within art?

GIFFORD: Public education initiatives are really important. The more these concerns are translated into easily understood terms for the public, the more they will get out to the administrative levels of museums and become an accepted priority. Not only activities within the museum but also Web-based initiatives are going to be a very important way of reaching a wide audience.

MCGLINCHEY: It's difficult, because if we are doing our job well, it is invisible to the public. I want it to be that way when they are looking at an object, but I also want the public to know about our processes at some point. That's a challenge. On an optimistic note, institutions are increasingly aware of the need to go in that direction.

DRAYMAN-WEISSER: The Walters is certainly going in that direction. Almost every exhibition has a section that deals with how an object was made, identification of materials, or something relating to conservation. When our educators carried out a survey to determine what parts of an exhibition the public found engaging, the most positive responses related to the conservation part of it. People wanted to see more of the technical and the conservation material. For some people, the conservation or science aspect of an exhibition becomes a window through which they begin to relate to the works of art. We also have a literal window, an open conservation window, where you can visit a conservator. The job of the person in that window is not to work on meeting a deadline, but to talk to the public. We get a steady flow of people, and they stay twenty to thirty minutes because they're fascinated. The Walters Education Division is involved with the Maryland public school system and has a program of integrating the arts, done through our interactive Web site. It's not to learn about art, but rather to learn about other subjects through art, such as math, science, language arts, and social studies. Conservation plays a role in the science part of it. For example, looking at analyses of traces of pigments on a stone object from the ancient Near East, the student identifies the colors and then virtually recolors the relief.

GIFFORD: Similarly at the National Gallery, we participate in various initiatives, including an annual event for gifted high school students, who tour different agencies in Washington. The tour of our science department always wakes a few students to the possibilities of the field.

MCGLINCHEY: MoMA's after-school program, the Art and Science of Conservation, meets weekly for a semester and is often the first opportunity high school juniors and seniors have to use analytical instrumentation. At school they're typically measuring boiling points and crystallization temperatures of materials, but in this class they're analyzing unknown materials in mockups their classmates have made. It's a great opportunity for youth who are technically minded to see how a practicing scientist can work. It may get them thinking about a career in this field—but more fundamentally, it helps them learn how scientific tools can make them better observers of the world around them.