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Research at the Interface of Science and Art
By Marco Leona
Conservation image

For the scientific study of cultural heritage to grow, it is essential to broaden the base of researchers involved and to foster partnerships among scientists in cultural heritage institutions and those in universities and national laboratories. To create those partnerships in ways that are sustainable, the involvement of funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) is crucial.

Over the last decade, conservation scientists, museum and private foundation representatives, and NSF program officers have discussed how such collaborations might be funded and implemented. Two initiatives in particular attracted the attention of the NSF to conservation science and cultural heritage research. In 2005 the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation commissioned a report to the NSF, edited by Paul Whitmore, outlining the state of the field and pinpointing areas for NSF support.¹ In October 2008, a symposium jointly organized by the Art Institute of Chicago and Northwestern University—"Productive Affinities: Successful Collaborations Between Museums and Academia"—further demonstrated that scientific collaborations between universities and national labs on one side and cultural heritage institutions on the other can lead to exciting scientific discoveries, benefit conservation and art-historical research, and have a substantial impact on educational and research training.

Promising as they are, today's collaborations between museum-based and university scientists have not yet fully realized the potential of current advances in scientific research. In order to promote broader partnerships between the cultural heritage worlds and academia, forty chemists and materials scientists from cultural heritage institutions, universities, national laboratories, and industry met in Arlington, Virginia, in July 2009 for a workshop, "Chemistry and Materials Research at the Interface Between Science and Art," jointly sponsored by the NSF and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.²

The Arlington workshop sought to involve leading chemists and materials scientists in a discussion on cultural heritage research, as well as to stimulate the involvement of the National Science Foundation in order to increase the synergies between cultural heritage institutions and the traditional research world. Materials research and chemistry were selected as the primary research areas—in part because of a need to keep the discussion focused but also because of the demonstrated interest in the field in recent years by materials scientists and chemists.

Workshop participants explored basic scientific questions related to the understanding and preservation of cultural heritage materials, and they discussed near- and long-term priorities for research into the components, structures, and aging processes of cultural heritage. Participants also highlighted the importance of a fundamental understanding, at the molecular and microstructural level, of cultural heritage materials, in order to learn about past cultures and technologies and to enhance our abilities to preserve the world’s material culture.

The discussion focused on three main challenges: the fundamental description of complex materials and structures, the understanding of material changes in cultural objects, and the efficient design of effective and safe conservation treatments. Workshop participants identified some promising avenues of research, such as:

  • development of analytical probes with high sensitivity and spatial resolution for restricted volume and/or standoff detection of component materials, degradation products, and deterioration markers;
  • study of ultra-slow changes in materials, occasionally in severely degraded states or in small populations with unique history;
  • compatibility-driven design for multifunctional treatment materials;
  • theoretical modeling in materials and structures that includes the complexity of authentic objects on their aging trajectory.

A consensus emerged on the necessity of building broad-based partnerships among researchers to bring advances in sensing technologies, nanoscience, materials design, and theoretical modeling of aging and deterioration processes into the field of cultural heritage research.

Finally, all participants noted the importance of a sustained funding effort on the part of the National Science Foundation. The mechanisms proposed included instrument development grants; initiatives for workforce development; small grants for exploratory research; multiyear research grants; support for workshops, conferences, and Web-based networking initiatives; and the creation of research centers. The enthusiasm demonstrated by academic scientists for the possibilities of scientific research in the field of cultural heritage was one of the key elements of the meeting. The general discussion at the end of the gathering highlighted the clear relevance and impact of the information gained through scientific investigation of cultural heritage materials. Many participants cited the incorporation of cultural heritage research into curricula as a highly effective means to attract and inspire the next generation of scientists.

As a result of the workshop, on February 4, 2010, the NSF issued a new solicitation—NSF 10-534, Chemistry and Materials Research at the Interface Between Science and Art (SCIART)³—for proposals between researchers in U.S. museums and academic institutions that aim to address the grand challenges outlined in the workshop.

Marco Leona is scientist in charge of the Department of Scientific Research at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

1. Paul M. Whitmore (coordinating author), Conservation Science Research: Activities, Needs, and Funding Opportunities: A Report to the National Science Foundation (Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, 2005).
2. The workshop report, together with supporting material, can be found at