Collections Research
A Combined Approach to the Study of Works of Art
By Karen Trentelman
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Last year the group within the Getty Conservation Institute's Science program responsible for conducting research into works of art in collaboration with the conservation and curatorial staff of the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Getty Research Institute was renamed Collections Research. This renaming grew out of the evolving scope of work being carried out by the GCI scientific team in particular, and by museum-based scientists in general. Historically, museum-based science laboratory names contained the words services or analytical (as in Museum Services or Conservation Analytical Laboratory), reflecting the sample-based and largely reactive nature of the work. Today scientists increasingly work as part of a multidisciplinary team brought together to bring a more holistic approach to the study of works of art. This proactive, problem-solving approach is suggested in the current names of laboratories, which typically include the words research or scientific (or both). The evolution in naming is a direct reflection of the changing role of scientists in cultural heritage institutions over the past several decades.

Although collections research would not be appropriate to denote scientific work on immovable heritage, such as archaeological sites and historic structures, might the term have broad applicability in describing the activities of museum-based science laboratories?


The scientific study of works of art draws from nearly all the established scientific disciplines—chemistry, physics, materials science, biology, and engineering. This is one of the more remarkable and valuable aspects of the field. But research efforts are still largely perceived as specialty applications within one of these established fields. Combining all the scientific aspects of museum-based research under the term collections research—emphasizing the subject of the research rather than the approach—might be an important step in helping create a unified, distinct discipline.

The terms currently in most common use to describe the application of scientific methods to the study of works of art in collections are conservation science, technical art history, and archaeometry. Each term carries different connotations with respect to the motivation, methodologies, and expected outcome of the study. Unfortunately, each term has at various times been used to promote one type of research over another—a reflection of politics, not science. These names simply represent different approaches in the application of science to the study of works of art. Whether the instrument of observation is a simple magnifier or a synchrotron radiation source or the objective is the development of a new conservation adhesive or the uncovering of ancient technologies, these approaches are all based on the scientific method: testing a hypothesis through the gathering of data, the interpretation of which may provide answers to the initial questions put forth, suggest further studies, or, in some cases, prompt entirely new research.

Conservation science, often used to describe all aspects of science related to the study of works of art, strictly speaking may be interpreted to refer only to those studies that directly affect the conservation of materials related to art, in terms of either understanding deterioration mechanisms or developing new treatment materials. Examples of conservation science under this definition include work by René de la Rie at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, in the development of UV inhibitors in paintings varnishes, and the cellulose degradation studies conducted by Paul Whitmore at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Although motivated by conservation concerns raised in the course of the study and treatment of individual objects or collections of objects, conservation science studies are rarely carried out on the objects themselves. Rather, experiments are carried out on model materials and mock-ups, on which new materials or procedures are thoroughly tested before being introduced into conservation practice.

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Technical art history is generally used to refer to studies that employ scientific and technical methodologies to uncover information regarding the nature of artists' materials and the methods used in the creation of works of art. Such studies also further an understanding of a particular artist's works and their historical context. Examples of technical art history studies include Francesca Bewer's studies on Renaissance bronzes at the Harvard Art Museums and Melanie Gifford's work at the National Gallery of Art characterizing Rembrandt's hand. The first step in technical art history research is developing an understanding of the physical, chemical, and aging characteristics of artists' materials. From information gained through these studies, subsequent research may address art-historical questions such as the development and characteristics of a particular artist's technique, the relationship among artists working concurrently, the influence of earlier artists, or the impact on later artists. Because technical art history studies focus on the physical characteristics of artists' materials, they may serve as a foundation for conservation science studies that seek to develop conservation strategies and establishing appropriate environmental controls for exhibition or storage.

Archaeometry is in some ways the most general of these three terms. It is also, arguably, the most misunderstood and misused. The journal Archaeometry defines itself as "covering the application of the physical and biological sciences to archaeology and the history of art. The topics covered include dating methods, artifact studies, mathematical methods, remote sensing techniques, conservation science, environmental reconstruction, biological anthropology, and archaeological theory." Examples of archaeometric research include the study of arsenical bronze technology by Heather Lechtman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the use of compositional analysis to reconstruct early ceramic technology by Mike Tite of Oxford University. Despite the implications of the name, archaeometric methodologies are not limited to archaeological materials. Regardless of the time period of the object, archaeometric studies (like technical art history studies) begin with an in-depth analysis of the physical, chemical, and material properties of an object or group of objects, the results of which may be interpreted in terms of historical, cultural, or technological context, or may inform subsequent conservation or preservation decisions.

Because archaeometry includes both conservation science and technical art history, some have suggested that the term might be applied to all scientific studies relating to works of art. While this argument has merit, it is unlikely ever to be widely accepted because of the implied bias of the term archaeometry toward archaeological materials. However, the narrower definitions of technical art history and conservation science likewise make them inadequate representations of the broader field. Most museum-based science laboratories engage in a mixture of all three of these approaches—collections research.


Collections research, as the name implies, is the study of works of art in the collections of museums or other cultural heritage institutions. While this may seem obvious, what may not be self-evident are the implications regarding the particular challenges and opportunities that the term describes. By definition, collections consist of groups of objects that share common artistic, cultural, or historical factors. Collections research not only provides information regarding the material properties of individual objects but also enhances our understanding of their historic and cultural significance. However, perhaps the most distinguishing feature of collections research is that it is defined by the nature of the collection—its size, scope, focus, and condition.

As with all scientific studies, the breadth of the questions that can be addressed by collections research scales directly with the number of available objects. Studies designed around a group of related objects offer the opportunity to explore broad questions, such as defining the influences that led to the development of the working technique of a particular artist or identifying important environmental factors in the aging properties of materials. For example, what began as a relatively routine pigment characterization study of three manuscript illuminations created by the fifteenth-century French artist Jean Bourdichon yielded the intriguing discovery of the presence of the pigment bismuth black. While interesting, the significance of this finding was unclear until the study was expanded to include works spanning the course of Bourdichon's career. This expanded study provided insight into the development of his palette and technique, identifying Bourdichon as one of the earliest artists to employ bismuth black as a painting pigment.¹ Expansion of the study set to include related objects from other time periods or geographic locations might enable even broader questions to be addressed, such as how the pigment subsequently migrated to Italy, where it has been identified in early sixteenth-century panel paintings by Raphael and Fra Bartolommeo.²

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Expanding the scope of a research project to include objects in different media (thereby including different conservation and curatorial subdisciplines) similarly creates opportunities for developing broader research questions. For example, for an upcoming Getty exhibition on early Renaissance workshop practices, research into the relationship between manuscript illumination and panel painting techniques is being conducted by a multidisciplinary team consisting of curators, conservators, and scientists. One specific avenue of research is whether the manuscript illuminations, which are in a good state of preservation, might provide information regarding the discoloration and deterioration observed in certain passages in the panel paintings. The results of such studies not only have the potential to impact the preservation of the paintings, but—by possibly providing new insight into the original appearance of the paintings—may also affect their interpretation.

It is important to note that museum-based research is not limited to objects found within a single collection. However, access to objects is important, and thus groups of related objects within a single collection provide a natural starting point for developing research programs. Once preliminary studies have been done, arrangements may be made to include objects from other collections. For example, a collaborative research project between the Getty and several other institutions into early glass technology was inspired by objects contained within each institution's collection, but it has been enhanced by the combining of efforts.

Collections research may also be defined by the focus of the collection and, by extension, the interests and needs of the conservators and curators. For example, collections of archaeological objects might require research into reconstructing historic craft technology or into evaluating the impact of its burial environment and subsequent excavation—focusing on the archaeometric aspect of collections research. Similarly, a European fine-art collection might inspire research on the techniques of particular artists to strengthen attribution and authorship or to provide additional information in support of the interpretation of the object—focusing on the technical art history aspect of collections research. Finally, a collection of works composed of modern materials might demand research into predicting the aging properties of the materials in order to better assure their preservation—focusing on the conservation science aspect of collections research (see Conservation Perspectives, vol. 24, no. 2).

The condition of a collection similarly can influence the nature of the collections research. Collections of objects in poor condition may necessitate more conservation science research, while collections of objects in good condition may support more technical art history or archaeometric studies. Encyclopedic collections perhaps represent the best fit for the term collections research, with research being conducted in response to the various needs of the collection—be it in the form of conservation science, technical art history, or archaeometry.

Another aspect of collections research is the adaptation of new technologies for use in the study of cultural heritage materials. Collaboration with university-based scientists may provide an opportunity to evaluate the applicability of the latest advances in technology and to carry out fundamental chemical or materials science research relevant to the study of cultural heritage materials. In an effort to foster the development of academic–cultural heritage collaborations into the study of fundamental scientific phenomena related to cultural heritage materials, new funding opportunities are being offered in the United States by the National Science Foundation.

The designation collections research indeed may be a suitable umbrella term for work carried out in museum-based scientific laboratories, highlighting the subject of the research—works of art in collections—rather than the approach. Encompassing those areas described as conservation science, technical art history, and archaeometry, collections research may take on different aspects depending on the needs of the collection and the research interests of its stewards. It may examine the behavior of single materials or complex composites, focus on an individual object or an entire artistic movement, or employ new technologies to rediscover ancient ones. It may be object based or material based. It may concentrate on the commonalities within a collection or explore new relationships among seemingly disparate objects or media. It may help us understand the history of artists and past cultures or anticipate—and prevent—future deterioration.

It is as varied as collections themselves.

Karen Trentelman is a GCI senior scientist; she oversees the Institute's Collections Research Laboratory.

1. K. Trentelman and N. Turner, "Investigation of the painting materials and techniques of the late-15th century manuscript illuminator Jean Bourdichon," Journal of Raman Spectroscopy 40 (2009): 577–84; L. Burgio et al., "Spectroscopic investigations of Bourdichon miniatures: Masterpieces of light and color," Applied Spectroscopy 63, no. 6 (2009): 611–20.
2. M. Spring, R. Grout, and R. White, "Black earths: A study of unusual black and dark grey pigments used by artists in the sixteenth century," National Gallery Technical Bulletin 24 (2003): 96–113 (other references therein).