Protecting Cultural Treasures
A diversity of materials and objects keeps this lab focused as much on the chemistry as the artwork
Behind the scenes at several of the nation’s top art museums, scientists work to characterize, protect, and understand priceless pieces of our cultural heritage. Although few in number and largely located on the two coasts, this elite group of scientific facilities welcomed its latest addition, the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA), from the nation’s heartland. The IMA is one of the 10 oldest and largest encyclopedic museums in America, with over 56,000 works in its collection. This state-of-the-art laboratory now provides the conservation and curatorial staff a powerful new tool in their respective tasks of protecting and interpreting this impressive collection of artwork.
Dr. Gregory Dale Smith, the Otto N. Frenzel III Senior Conservation Scientist, was hired in 2010 to lead this new science initiative, a program sponsored by the Lilly Endowment, Inc., a major philanthropic organization in Indianapolis. Aside from prioritizing the investigation of the museum’s collection, Smith’s first responsibility was designing, constructing, and outfitting the lab from the ground up.
Conservation scientists play a variety of roles in the museum, and a properly designed lab facilitates each of these tasks. Museum scientists are primarily analytical chemists, answering the question “What is this material?” Service analytical work for the museum’s nine conservators keeps the lab busy. The information gained from these analyses helps the conservators design treatments for artwork that are not only effective in preserving and improving the objects’ appearance, but are also safe for the component materials. Furthermore, the scientist is a technical art historian, characterizing the construction method, materials, and condition of an object to assist curators in interpreting the artwork’s history, meaning, authorship, and authenticity. Finally, the museum’s scientists are researchers in the chemistry of artists’ materials. This work is similar to that conducted in industrial and academic labs around the world, but with the distinction of focusing on materials and degradation processes pertinent to cultural heritage.
The variety of roles played by the museum scientist dictates a flexible lab with a full complement of analytical tools. Smith relates that when he came to the IMA he was greeted with a bleak, 3,000-squarefoot “white office box,” a vacant cubicle formerly inhabited by the institution’s finance department. Although unimpressive at the time, this featureless landscape provided a blank canvas on which he could create a high-tech facility purpose built for the analysis of artwork.
Nondestructive analysis is preferred over invasive sampling for these sometimes-precious objects. Therefore, artwork commonly travels to the lab’s many experimental stations. The movement of art around the laboratory is a carefully choreographed dance. To ensure the safety of the works while in the science suite, the lab was designed with advanced security and environmental controls. In addition, the lab features large doorways and passages and avoids the tangle of tubing, cables, high-pressure gas cylinders, and other clutter that can often build up in a busy lab with many instruments.
The IMA facility presents a clean installation with sweeping views across the space to large picture windows (UV filtered, shatterproof, and highly insulated!) overlooking a wooded ravine. Smith says, “I avoided any ducts or shelving that would obscure lines of sight, even choosing transparent glass chemical hoods. Of course you don’t want to spoil the view, but even more so I want to be aware of what everyone in the lab is doing at all times—you can’t run the risk of turning a blind corner and stumbling into someone carrying a painting.”
The diversity of materials represented by the museum’s collections demands an equally diverse range of analytical tools. Chief Conservator David Miller notes, “The IMA’s collection is encyclopedic, covering fine art from all time periods and geographic regions. There are paintings, polychrome carvings, photographs, prints, sculpture, and architecture— all of which require conservation and art historical consideration, and as a result, chemical analysis.” These diverse forms of art present a wide variety of material classes: glass, ceramic, wood, resins, synthetic plastics, and metals. To cover this analytical challenge, Smith equipped the lab with approximately $1.5M in new instrumentation, including molecular and elemental spectrometers, optical and electron microscopes, gas and liquid chromatographs, mass spectrometers, thermal analyzers, and aging chambers that use light, temperature, and relative humidity to simulate centuries of natural aging for testing purposes.
Portability was also a consideration. “We use a number of handheld instruments because the IMA is much more than just a fine arts museum,” says Smith. He continues, “We also have two historic homes, one of which is 45 minutes outside of Indianapolis, as well as a 100- acre sculpture park on the museum’s campus.” Portability also allows the museum’s scientists to work collaboratively with regional museums and as part of international teams. Smith, who has a background in both chemistry and archaeology, joined the University of Michigan’s Kelsey Museum staff at their excavation in Abydos, Egypt, this past spring to assist with analyses in the field.
An “artful” lab
One unusual aspect of the IMA science lab is its distinctive décor. The facility was designed using a contemporary take on the historic Arts and Crafts aesthetic. The dark-stained, rift-sawn oak cabinetry poses a subtle contrast to the richly colored gold and forest green walls, periodically accented with custom-made decorative artwork: hammered copper, glazed ceramics, patinated bronzes, and framed prints. Smith explains, “As one who always straddled the arts-science divide, I never felt fully at home in the whitewashed, sterile environment of most science labs. We incorporated historic design, namely Craftsman-period interiors, to truly interface the arts with the sciences.” The result is a welcoming work environment that is in line with the purpose of the facility— to study artwork. Smith is quick to point out that none of the decorative objects, from the Tiffany glass chandelier to the carved mahogany periodic table, were purchased. All the pieces were donated by craftspeople, many Roycroft master artisans, who were drawn to the idea of a high-tech facility embracing the tenets of the Arts and Crafts movement—natural materials and honest craftsmanship. The works also serve as didactics, useful teaching tools for incoming scientists and students who are not familiar with artists’ techniques. Smith says, “Many of the lab’s volunteers and interns come to me with strong backgrounds in the physical sciences but little experience making or analyzing artwork. These pieces were donated specifically to the lab and provide examples that we can freely handle, analyze, and experiment on—plus they are beautiful to have around.”
Another distinctive aspect of the lab’s mission is to educate. Dr. Smith, who came to the IMA from a professorship at SUNY Buffalo State College’s graduate training program in art conservation, quickly found an adjunct position in Indianapolis. His lab currently hosts an Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis graduate student from the school’s Forensic and Investigative Sciences Program, and Smith offers a graduate Chemistry Department course on the analysis of fakes and forgeries. His other mission is to get more cultural heritage chemistry into the undergraduate curriculum. To this end, he has sponsored several university faculty members on sabbatical leaves to develop curricular materials for “Chemistry of Art” courses while completing research projects in the IMA laboratory.
When asked about his favorite aspect of working in a museum, Dr. Smith replies that it is all about the artwork and the lifelong process of learning. Smith, whose background includes research projects focusing on Vermeer paintings and Gutenberg Bibles, remarks that it is the diversity of materials and objects that has kept him fascinated with cultural heritage chemistry rather than the high-profile artwork itself. “It is indeed amazing to be handling a cultural treasure like a van Gogh painting, but it is equally fascinating to study an anonymous Native American basket and discover something new about its manufacture, materials, or state of preservation. It’s that rare glimpse backward that is most rewarding about this field.”
And what of challenges? Museum science faces the same challenges of funding, keeping up with technology, and handling large datasets that beset all scientific fields. Smith notes, thankfully, that one of the pleasant challenges the museum scientist tackles is knowing when to quit. A single picture could keep an analyst busy at the instruments for years dissecting every brushstroke or material choice by the artist. Smith says, “In conservation we have the mantra ‘better is the enemy of good,’ which keeps us from getting distracted from the big picture by the fascinating minutia that each object affords.” It lets him set down that van Gogh for a moment in order to pursue the next intriguing object.
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