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Art Institute Collaboration on Conservation Science

Nation’s first multi-year collaboration in conservation science to involve an art museum and university

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November 22, 2005 | by Megan Fellman
Northwestern has partnered with The Art Institute of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory on a long-term art conservation and scientific research program that recently received a three-year, $500,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

This is the nation’s first multi-year collaboration in conservation science to involve an art museum and a university. The objectives are to offer a model for integrative and cross-disciplinary collaboration among museums, universities and scientific institutions in an effort to enhance the field of conservation science in the United States as well as to strengthen the Art Institute’s research capabilities.

During the past year, funded by an initial $50,000 grant from Mellon, Northwestern and the Art Institute demonstrated that interesting conservation problems involving some of the museum’s ancient jades and Chinese bronzes existed and could best be addressed collaboratively. The partners will now broaden their work as they continue to conduct important interdisciplinary research and offer education programs focused on fundamental issues involving science and art that require outstanding research quality and intellectual breadth.

“We are thrilled to be a part of this important collaboration with the Art Institute and Argonne,” said Katherine T. Faber, professor of materials science and engineering and Northwestern’s liaison to the program. “Our faculty members, who have expertise in nearly all aspects of metals, ceramics and polymers, welcome the opportunity to bring their expertise and research tools to the study of objects of cultural heritage.”

The scientific work will be undertaken jointly by faculty and students at Northwestern -- primarily from the department of materials science and engineering, which is consistently ranked as one of the best materials science departments in the country -- and Argonne and conservators and scientists at the Art Institute. Researchers at Northwestern and Argonne will learn about critical problems in conservation science, while conservation staff at the Art Institute will explore techniques and methods in engineering that may advance their work in conservation and enhance their ability to interpret the museum’s collections.

“The infusion of science in the museum and stimulation by art of some of the nation’s top scientific thinkers should help to develop new ways of looking at art and lead to exciting discoveries,” said Francesca Casadio, A. W. Mellon Conservation Scientist at the Art Institute. “Collaborations with academic scientists have been attempted in the past, but rarely in the form of long-term structured collaborations such as this initiative, which is an exciting prospect for all of us.”

The new funding will extend the existing conservation science program into three main components:

• Collaborative research projects focused on Asian art (mainly jades and ancient Chinese bronzes), modern art materials (for paintings and sculptures) and studies of artists’ materials and techniques (for scholarly purposes and to assist authentication and determine provenance).

• Exploratory research grants to develop innovative scientific techniques for looking at art.

• A seminar series to stimulate creative thinking through presentations and discussions among scientists, curators and conservators. (The seminars in 2006 will be held in the spring and summer.)

The Northwestern faculty currently involved in the program are Faber, who will continue her work determining the mineral composition of certain ancient Chinese jades; David Dunand, James N. and Margie M. Krebs Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, and Joseph Lambert, Clare Hamilton Hall Professor of Chemistry, whose work involves analyzing the composition and patinas of modern bronzes by artists such as Matisse, Brancusi and Picasso, and investigating the casting technology of bronzes from the early Western Zhou Dynasty using the powerful X-rays at Argonne’s Advanced Photon Source; and Kimberly Gray, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, who, using tiny paint chips from Georges Seurat’s painting “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” is studying the aging process of the pigment zinc yellow.

After the first year of the new Mellon grant, faculty from science and engineering disciplines at the University will be invited to compete for exploratory research grants that will focus on other projects of conservation interest to the Art Institute.

In addition to a wealth of faculty expertise, Northwestern is contributing to the collaboration specialized analytical equipment and research methods that the Art Institute does not have in its Conservation Science Laboratory. This includes state-of-the-art microscopy facilities and surface analysis techniques, which are part of the University’s NUANCE center (Atomic and Nanoscale Characterization Experimental Center), and the Jerome B. Cohen X-ray Laboratory.

Topics: Research, University