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
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.