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News What does a museum scientist do?

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​Left: Dr. Jocelyn Alcántara-García performs dye identification using liquid chromatography, which, used in conjunction with a nondestructive analysis technique (x-ray fluorescence), can shine a light on dyeing practices. Right: Dr. Marcie Wiggins uses an x-ray diffractometer to try to tell different copper pigments apart.

​A series of Winterthur Museum blog posts sheds light on the varied work of scientists and volunteers at Winterthur's Scientific Research and Analysis Laboratory (SRAL), many of whom serve as affiliated faculty for the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation.

The most recent post in the series focuses on how the SRAL participates in the education of early career conservators through a partnership with the Department of Art Conservation at the University of Delaware, and focuses on Dr. Jocelyn Alcántara-García and Dr. Marcie Wiggins, who both work in the Scientific Research and Analysis Laboratory (SRAL) at Winterthur. Excerpted from that post:

The University of Delaware and Winterthur Museum have worked together for 45 years. This partnership has resulted in the graduate-level Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation. The goal of this program is to educate and to train conservation professionals. This symbiotic relationship has created additional avenues of research, training, and collaborations for Winterthur Museum and the University of Delaware alike, whether it is instrumental analyses or archival access.

Dr. Jocelyn Alcántara-García is an assistant professor in the Department of Art Conservation, University of Delaware. She teaches analytical techniques to WUDPAC graduate students alongside Winterthur scientists: “My primary research focuses on the study of textiles dyed with natural dyes, mostly related to the trade between the United Kingdom and United States, but I recently started to study pre-Columbian, archaeological, and Andean textiles. I am working on developing a completely nondestructive methodology for dye analysis.

I also advise graduate students who are specializing in paper, book, archaeological materials, or textiles, and I am the faculty advisor for Terrific Tuesdays, which takes place over the summer at Winterthur

Dr. Marcie Wiggins just completed her doctorate within the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Delaware under Dr. Jocelyn Alcántara-García. She will soon start a new position as a postdoctoral fellow at Yale’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage: “With Winterthur scientists and Tsinghua University, I have studied the degradation of a common copper-based pigment, verdigris. We used imaging methods to identify pigments used in the Forbidden City and how they might have been manufactured.

I started on this career track because I knew I wanted to study chemistry but I was also interested in art. Initially I thought I wanted to be a conservator; however, after some years of practical experience, I realized my interests lay more in an analysis and research lab setting.”

​From left to right: Dr. Judy Rudolph examines a cross-section from a painting by William Williams; using electron microscopy imaging and energy dispersive spectroscopy (SEM-EDS) she might be able to find out which pigments he used. Dr. Chris Petersen uses a gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer (GC-MS) to unravel molecular mysteries at Winterthur. Dr. Mike Crawford uses a fiber optic reflectance spectrophotometer (FORS) to measure the thickness of coatings on Winterthur’s silver collection. Dr. Mike Szelewski uses his expertise from his long career at Agilent to teach conservators in Paris about identifying different types of lacquer.

​The second post in the series is about four volunteers working within the Scientific Research and Analysis Laboratory, several of whom retired from local industries have found themselves putting their skills and expertise to excellent use in museums. Excerpted from that post:

Dr. Judy Rudolph retired from W. L. Gore and Associates in 2015: “As I came nearer to retiring from a long career in electron microscopy, I started considering volunteering. A friend of mine mentioned that Winterthur not only had an analytical laboratory but also had a scanning electron microscope with chemical analysis! It was a match made in heaven as I am also an amateur painter!

I now work one day a week in the SRAL. I get to look at samples from paintings, paper, textiles, ceramics, and furniture, and I hope this work will help further the understanding of these wonderful works of art.”

Dr. Chris Petersen has been volunteering in the SRAL for 18 years: “After a 30-year career in research at the DuPont company, I found a way to combine a passion for art with science at the SRAL at Winterthur. I can combine chemistry and art with eager students and dedicated colleagues with both science and artistic talent.  I call it an accidental 18-year second career.

Dr. Mike Crawford retired from DuPont Central Research & Development after a 31-year career. He is also an affiliated professor in the Physics and Astronomy Department at the University of Delaware while volunteering at SRAL:  “My work at Winterthur currently involves the study of nitrocellulose polymer coatings that reduce tarnishing of silver objects in the museum collection.  An optical measurement has been shown to be a convenient, non-destructive way to measure the thickness of the polymer films. This information is needed to understand and improve protection provided by these coatings.

As a lover of museums in general, and Winterthur in particular, I very much enjoy the opportunity to contribute in a small way to its success. Using my research experience in collaboration with museum staff members to address interesting problems in art conservation is both rewarding and fun!”

Dr. Mike Szelewski retired from Agilent Technologies in 2013: “I heard lectures by Winterthur scientists years ago and introduced myself.  As an analytical chemist working at Agilent, these new-to-me application areas were very interesting.  I am interested in improving the sensitivity of the scientific instrumentation used in the SRAL and in using various software tools to provide more complete and useful information.

Together with Getty, we started a database for Asian lacquer, leveraging my experience with databases. Today we have a method for identifying lacquer using py-GC/MS.”

​Left: Catherine Matsen places a microscopically small sample inside an x-ray diffractometer. This instrument can tell the scientists what minerals are present in a work of art. Right: Dr. Rosie Grayburn analyzes the elements present in a looking glass from the Winterthur collection using a portable x-ray fluorescence spectrometer. She is checking for the presence of tin or silver to indicate how the mirror was made.

​The first post in the series talks about the field of conservation science and looks at the analytical capabilities and equipment within the museum's Scientific Research and Analysis Laboratory, and focuses on the work of Dr. Rosie Grayburn and Catherine Matsen, scientists working within the Department of Conservation at Winterthur. Excerpted from that post:

Within the Department of Conservation at Winterthur we are lucky to have one of only a handful of museum science labs in the entire country. The Scientific Research and Analysis Laboratory (SRAL) houses 11 high tech analytical instruments and several microscopes that museum scientists use to identify the materials used in objects of art in nondestructive and minimally invasive ways in order to help conserve objects and help identify how and where they were made. They do this by using instrumentation to identify elements and molecules and matching them to known materials commonly found in works of art, or by conducting experiments to predict how art will change over time in the museum environment. Who knew that science could be applied to art in this way?

We perform materials analysis on all types of objects from the museum collection using different instrumental techniques available to us in our lab. We work with Winterthur’s conservators and curators to understand the materials present in the objects, so they can better understand how to treat the object, how it has changed over time, how it was made, or possibly, when it was made. This applied field of science is called conservation science.

No day is the same here in the SRAL! One day we are studying materials and method of manufacture of Winterthur’s Chinese-export lacquered objects attributed to production in Guangzhou (Canton) from the 18th to 19th centuries; the next we are finding new ways of identifying different types of plated silverware. There is an inexhaustible supply of fascinating material questions and problems to explore here at Winterthur. Recently we analyzed all 275+ looking glasses and mirrors in the museum’s collection. Before the early 20th century, most reflective surfaces were made from a tin-mercury amalgam. This material can degrade to liquid mercury thus posing a possible health risk to our colleagues who handle the mirrors. We worked with our preventive conservation colleagues to identify the elements present in the mirrors so that safe handling procedures could be determined for those mirrors containing the amalgam.

We love applying our scientific knowledge to materials found in the museum’s collection: there is always a clear application which makes our work feel truly worthwhile. We are also lucky to work with a very diverse group of people―conservators, curators, students from the renowned Winterthur/UD Program in Art Conservation and the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture, PhD students, other museums, and visiting scholars from around the world.

We are often asked how one trains to become a museum scientist. What we do is subtly different from scientists in industry because we abide by a Code of Ethics, set out by the American Institute of Conservation.  For anyone considering museum science as a career, we always advise studying science to a high level while also learning as much as you can about art, history, and material culture. Conservation science is a small, highly specialized field of science so do consider reaching out to museum professionals for advice and guidance.

To read the full series of blog posts, visit the Winterthur Museum's online blog page here. To learn more about the Scientific Research and Analysis Laboratory and the work performed there by ARTC students, click here.

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A series of blog posts sheds light on the varied work of scientists, faculty, and volunteers at Winterthur's ARTC-affiliated Scientific Research and Analysis Laboratory.

A series of blog posts sheds light on the varied work of scientists, faculty, and volunteers at Winterthur's ARTC-affiliated Scientific Research and Analysis Laboratory.

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  • The Department of Art Conservation
  • 303 Old College
  • University of Delaware
  • Newark, DE 19716, USA
  • Phone: 302-831-3489