What is the character of conservation science? What has been its impact on conservation practice? And what is the best way to bring new scientists into the field? Conservation put these questions and others to three distinguished conservation scientists with extensive experience working at the nexus of science and art.
Aviva Burnstock is a reader and acting director of the Department of Conservation and Technology at the Courtauld Institute of Art, where she took a postgraduate diploma in the conservation of easel paintings (1984) and a Ph.D. (1991). From 1986 to 1992, she worked in the Scientific Department of the National Gallery, London, after a year as a paintings conservator in Australia. Her first degree is in neurobiology. She was awarded the first Joop Los Fellowship at the Institute for Molecular Physics (AMOLF/FOM), Amsterdam, in 2003.
Chris McGlinchey has worked as a conservation scientist at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (MoMA), since 1999 and has also served as adjunct professor of conservation science at New York University since 1986. Prior to working at MoMA, he was a scientist in the Paintings Conservation Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (19841999) and helped with the development of a stable varnish for old master paintings. He has a master's degree in polymer science and engineering from Polytechnic University, Brooklyn.
Narayan Khandekar received a Ph.D. from the Department of Organic Chemistry, University of Melbourne, and a post-graduate diploma in the conservation of easel paintings from the Courtauld Institute of Art. He has worked at the Hamilton Kerr Institute, the Melbourne University Gallery, and the Museum Research Laboratory of the Getty Conservation Institute. He is currently senior conservation scientist in the Straus Center for Conservation, Harvard University Art Museums, and senior lecturer in the History of Art and Architecture, Harvard University.
They spoke with Giacomo Chiari, chief scientist at the GCI, and Jeffrey Levin, editor of Conservation, The GCI Newsletter.
Jeffrey Levin: How would each of you define conservation science?
Aviva Burnstock: I would say it is research applied to the study of works of art and their physical preservation that includes the component of scientific methodology or analysis.
Chris McGlinchey: It's a general term that describes the work of any scientist who conducts research to assist with the study, examination, and preservation of museum objects.
Burnstock: What about the use of scientific methodology or analysis—because that's normally what a scientist does. There are methodologies that you can apply that deal with conducting experiments, the reproducibility of results, constructing hypotheses, and testing them. Wouldn't you say that is what makes it a hard science?
McGlinchey: The term, by necessity, must be imprecise, so that it reflects the breadth of scientific talents the profession requires. The nature of the inquiry will determine what technical resources, among the many available, will be tapped.
Burnstock: But isn't conservation science necessarily a hybrid? In order to pose questions, it requires not simply the ability to do analysis of a particular type but also an overview of how experiments can be carried out to examine complex problems. That's what makes it special.
Narayan Khandekar: There are other areas of science that are like that, such as marine science, which deals with the same types of issues with many different methods of analysis. I also think it might be good to broaden the definition from museum objects to cultural heritage. There are scientists involved in the conservation of sites, outdoor monuments, and all sorts of things that are not museum objects. I think of myself as a museum scientist, but there are others who deal with difficult nonmuseum things—repairing prehistoric footprints, sheltering sites to protect them, repairing archaeological monuments, and so on.
Burnstock: Is that conservation science?
Khandekar: I think it is. You need to understand what the treatment is and the impact that treatment may have on the object, which includes the site and the environment.
Levin: I think we would all agree that conservation science is a hybrid. But is it now recognized as a separate discipline? Has it achieved its own distinct identity?
Khandekar: I think it's recognized. The National Science Foundation has been giving grants to the field. That's recognition by a U.S. government organization that conservation science is a scientific discipline.
McGlinchey: It's a great start. But I don't think there's a cultural identification of conservation science as a separate discipline, as there is with environmental or marine science. We're further along than we were fifteen years ago, but I don't think we're close.
Burnstock: I'm not sure that useful conservation science can be separated from input from art historians and individuals who define our cultural heritage, informed by pure science and conservation practice. The most useful projects may not be categorized strictly as conservation science, whatever that is. They're always hybrid projects.
Giacomo Chiari: Is the conservation scientist recognized at the same level as a chemist or a physicist or a biologist? Is conservation science a science?
Burnstock: It's not traditional in the way that chemistry and physics are traditional, long-standing disciplines, taught systematically with underlying principles. But that shouldn't limit the funding that goes to a project, which, if well defined, can be very useful in preserving cultural heritage.
Levin: Over the last fifteen or twenty years, in what areas has conservation science had the greatest impact on the practice of conservation?
Khandekar: There are certain individuals who have contributed greatly to the advancement of different aspects of conservation using science as a basis—people like Richard Wolbers with gel cleaning and René de la Rie with his work on stable varnishes and retouching media. At the moment, there are people who work on model systems, like Christina Young, who works with Aviva. And there are people like Michael Schilling and Tom Learner who have developed new analytical methodologies.
Burnstock: I thought the question was more about the areas where conservation science has contributed, rather than individuals—for example, the recognition of the importance of passive conservation control of the environment, and the improvements in the way that art objects are transported in meeting the world demand for blockbuster exhibitions. Those are areas in which conservation science has contributed a lot.
Levin: The individuals that Narayan mentioned have generally done research on ways to improve analysis and treatment of specific objects. The things that you're describing, Aviva, are more about the care of collections.
Burnstock: There are huge areas of conservation—quite specific and very important—where enormous advances have been made. For example, the study of the stability of materials. The general principle that conservation materials should be stable and reversible has been a big step forward. There are a number of individuals whose research has contributed to that. Equally, the study of the materials and techniques of works of art and their deterioration is a major area of advance. All of those things help us to preserve our cultural heritage better than we could before.
McGlinchey: I concur. For example, introducing scientific rigor to the concept of reversibility has allowed for the efficient evaluation of materials of potential value to the conservation community.
Khandekar: When we're talking about the big advances in conservation science, they clearly fall into two camps: materials research and objects. Everything that we've discussed can fall into one of those two groups.
Levin: In what way has the relationship among conservation scientists, conservators, and curators changed in recent years?
Burnstock: There's a dialogue. Some institutions, like the Courtauld, where I work, are keen on improving relationships among curators and conservators and others, who want to study works of art in different ways. Dialogue is encouraged, so that you now have museums where curators are involved in the conservation of works of art, and you have academics in universities who are interested in material studies of paintings and, by implication, in their conservation.
Khandekar: I also think that it's improved. One of the things that we do at Harvard, which has a long-term effect, is running undergraduate and postgraduate courses through the History of Art and Architecture Department that look at the materials and techniques of art and artists, and at scientific analysis. People taking those courses have become museum directors and curators, and they have developed a stronger appreciation for the physical objects, which is critical.
Burnstock: We have similar courses for undergraduate art historians, some of whom subsequently apply to the conservation of paintings program. They obviously see the relationship between technical studies of objects and their preservation. That's certainly a way that we can train conservators, but generally speaking, we don't attract scientists in that way. That's a problem.
McGlinchey: There is good collegial interaction between the Institute of Fine Art [IFA] and the Conservation Center at New York University. In terms of bringing science into the IFA program, demand for it has increased over the last fifteen years because new techniques have created information that tells us a great deal about, for example, painting techniques and metallurgy. Those students who ultimately become curators and museum directors do have an awareness of how science can assist them.
Levin: I'd like to return to this question of looking at the particular problems of objects and materials, and looking at the overarching problems of collection care, site preservation, and preventive conservation. How evenly divided is work in each of these broad areas? Do you see conservation science moving toward one or the other?
McGlinchey: My sense is that they're expanding concurrently. There's a need to advance what one might call routine technical examination issues, as well as the long-term, big-picture research projects. The big-picture issues are derived from the collection that scientists are associated with—and if there is something about that collection that can define a research project that potentially could benefit segments of other collections.
Burnstock: Conservation science is still small enough to be driven by the needs of the profession. I see several areas where that might change. Certainly issues related to tourism and the transport and display of paintings will be a focus for conservation scientists—how we preserve our works under conditions driven by cultural needs. But there are other areas, too. For example, there's proliferation in contemporary art of different materials and all kinds of combinations of media that are going to demand different sorts of conservation.
McGlinchey: Since Aviva brought up the issue of contemporary art, one thing that hasn't been mentioned, which is important, is that change tends to be most dramatic for things that are young. This is not just common to modern materials but also to encaustic, oil, and tempera techniques as well, and it relates to how we look at old master paintings. We can begin to ask ourselves questions about why something looks the way it does and how rapidly those changes occurred. For example, did Rembrandt himself witness changes to his work? It's not just about the materiality of the collection—it's the age of the collection. With contemporary art, we're dealing with things that for all intents and purposes have zero hours of aging. How we exhibit and store these collections has tremendous bearing on how long they will last.
Khandekar: One of the things that I have found very useful is having postdoctoral scientists in my lab who come not from conservation but from a pure science background. They bring a wealth of information and interests that don't necessarily occur to those of us who work in museums. They're given the freedom during their fellowships to explore their own research, and so far it's proven very successful in bringing new scientists into the field.
Burnstock: Do you find that people from a hard science background without experience in conservation can quickly pick up conservation issues? Or do they need to work with conservators and consult with them in order to focus their questions and approach?
Khandekar: They do need that guidance, and that's why they're in the museum environment. The conservators and curators are all part of the program, and they help guide the research and the questions.
Burnstock: That collaboration is very important, isn't it? Hard science might bring new ways of examining or testing, but it's important that the questions are focused and defined by a conservator who knows what the pressing issues are.
Levin:Should conservation scientists be able to pursue advanced degrees while on the job, in order to encourage people with a variety of backgrounds to enter the field? Or is it better for scientists to get a Ph.D. in one of the more recognized scientific disciplines first?
Burnstock: People trained in a conservation specialty are well placed to focus their questions. They're typically quite passionate, but they hardly ever have the resources to investigate those questions in detail, whether it's via a limited project or pursuit of a Ph.D. There are many people trained in paintings conservation who would like to do a Ph.D. because they find a gap in knowledge that they feel they can address. But there's little support for people at that level, certainly in the U.K.
McGlinchey: I don't think there's a single solution. My personal feeling is that predoctoral candidates have the greatest potential to ultimately advance this field. The operative word is potential. If people whose undergraduate degrees are in chemistry, physics, or biology discover conservation before they go on to graduate school, and they have an opportunity to do a predoctoral internship to learn conservation issues and the limitations of techniques presently used in conservation laboratories, then when they go to graduate school and get exposed to cutting edge technology, they see immediately what techniques may have most potential. It gives them the vision of the direction a particular science is headed in, and how it can be applied to conservation. In addition, they're talking to other students and research advisors about conservation. They're potentially inspiring other people to look into the possibilities that conservation has for a particular science.
Burnstock: It's equally useful for people who have been in the profession for some time. Those people often make significant contributions to conservation science because they're focused on the problems growing out of their own experience.
McGlinchey: The reason I said that we should not limit ourselves to exclusively nurturing postdocs is that it's a little bit like an unhealthy forest. For a healthy forest, it's not enough to have a diversity of trees—it's important to have each species of trees represented at various stages of growth. We run the risk of being top-heavy by emphasizing the postdoc route.
Khandekar: I think that the single most important factor in scientists coming into the field is their interest in art. Once they have found a way to combine their interest in art and science, then the level of their education isn't the most critical factor. I don't think it needs to be defined as an undergraduate or postgraduate or postdoctoral way of entering the field. Individuals will find their own way.
Burnstock: Don't you think, though, that conservators need to drive the questions? Can scientists drive the questions in conservation science entirely?
Khandekar: Conservators don't need to drive the questions. There are projects I have worked on that are more science and art-history based than conservation based. Comparing diary notes with what materials an artist used to paint is something that doesn't have anything to do with conservation, but it still falls under conservation science.
Burnstock: I would argue that it's implicit in conservation to understand the materials and their deterioration.
Levin: Chris, where would you come down on this notion that the conservation scientist can sometimes drive research?
McGlinchey: Quite honestly, I feel split. It's a gamble to have the scientist drive the questions, but it is essential they have an interest in art and cultural heritage for them to have a long-term commitment. In an environment where resources are so limited, we need ways to prioritize the research that goes on in this field. If scientists are conducting research that hasn't received buy-in from conservators, it's going to be difficult for conservators to see the value a scientist can bring them.
Levin: Why, as yet, isn't there any kind of formal association of scientists working in this field?
Khandekar: There's the Institute of Conservation Science, which is based in England.
Levin: But that's strictly a U.K. organization. Why isn't there such an association in the United States, or an international organization of that kind?
Burnstock: Perhaps because scientists working on works of art may have disparate areas of specialization, which leads to polarization of interests. For example, there are analytical scientists who specialize in one piece of equipment or in the analysis of inorganic or organic materials, and there are those fewer people who have more holistic views of conservation science.
McGlinchey: What is happening on an international level is the loose formation of users groups, such as the Infrared and Raman Users Group and the nascent gas chromatography users group. A great way to advance those areas is to have scientists with common interests join together. I'd like to see that develop further.
Burnstock: They're very useful, I agree. But unless you're a specialist in those fields, you don't belong to those groups. They're not really conservation scientist associations with holistic visions.
Khandekar: There are subgroups in the larger conservation organizations that help scientists deal with this lack of an international body—the Research and Technical Studies specialty group in AIC and the scientific subgroup in ICOM. There isn't a massive demand for such an organization because it's a small field.
Levin: To what degree are new kinds of collaborations occurring between conservation institutions and nonconservation scientific organizations?
Chiari: In Italy, for five years, there was the Progetto Finalizzato Beni Culturali of the Italian National Research Council, which funded scientific and technological research into cultural heritage. That had a tremendous impact.
Burnstock: There's also the MOLAB/EUArteck European organization, which gives institutions that don't have analytical equipment the opportunity to look at new methods for noninvasive study of works of art. These sorts of relationships are potentially very useful. We don't have a laboratory at our institute, but through my liaison with AMOLF [the Dutch Institute for Atomic and Molecular Physics] and the institute's relationship with , we've provided students with an opportunity to do excellent work using up-to-date analytical equipment and access to experts in both analysis and conservation science in a range of disciplines. Of course, these places are far away from where we are.
Khandekar: A couple of examples come to mind from the Getty. With the , Dusan Stulik set up a successful collaboration with California State University, Northridge, and used their radioactive lab for conducting a number of experiments. Another example was the exterior mosaic of St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague. The coatings for the mosaic were developed with labs at UCLA.
McGlinchey: Shortly after arriving at MoMA, I interviewed the senior conservation staff to get a sense of some of the intractable problems they were confronting. It became evident that there was a need for a conservation-quality adhesive that would work for low-surface-energy polymers—nonpolar polymers like polyethylene. I contacted researchers at the Polymer Research Institute of Polytechnic University in Brooklyn, and that began collaborative research on a specific class of adhesives that are ideal for that group of polymers. We've made a lot of progress, and it's been a fruitful collaboration.
Burnstock: How many questions that you engage with as conservation scientists are driven by curatorial questions or art-historical questions?
Khandekar: We have a curatorial staff at Harvard that is very interested in the work that we do. We have regular, almost daily, interaction with the curators. It is a very supportive environment.
McGlinchey: For me, direct contact with the curators happens when they're concerned about issues of stability—for example, they want to know if a particular light level is safe or will cause fading. It's that kind of instance where I get contacted directly.
Burnstock: Do people from outside your institution come to you because you're the expert conservation scientist in that sort of modern collection?
McGlinchey: Yes. But at MoMA the collection is so broad and complex that I can spend all of my working hours answering questions directly related to our museum collection. When I do get outside calls, if I can't answer them in a brief phone conversation or with a quick follow-up call, I try to direct them elsewhere.
Burnstock: Because we have concerns that deal with other cultural heritage—the National Trust, English Heritage, and other collections in the U.K. that are in uncontrolled conditions—our interactions involve more than the Courtauld Institute Gallery's collection, for which we're responsible. In education, one is required to deal with a range of issues wider than those limited to museums.
Khandekar: Part of my work is doing fee-for-service analyses for regional museums and private collectors. Much of it is routine analysis, which we're trying to reduce, but we still take on projects that have an interesting research component. It's very important because it gives these people access to something that they normally don't have in a smaller museum.
Burnstock: The UKIC [United Kingdom Institute for Conservation], which is probably going to turn into the Institute of Conservation, was proposing that educators and people who work in museums act as mentors for people who've got questions about conservation science and preservation of cultural heritage. Do you have something like that in the United States?
Khandekar: I can't think of anything. I do take in people who are looking to enter conservation school or to get into the field, and give them lab projects so they get some experience to help them with their applications. And we have high school students occasionally, as well. I find it very rewarding working with people, showing them the work that I do, and giving them an opportunity to see if this is something that they want to pursue.
McGlinchey: The MoMA education department has great high school summer and after-school programs. In addition, if the applicants have any potential interest in conservation issues, they're directed to the conservation department. We've had a lot of successful, great students come out of that.
Burnstock: Giacomo and I had a discussion earlier about consciousness-raising for professionals who are involved in the preservation of cultural heritage—the people we need to persuade to do scientific studies as part of conservation. It's those people who can and should be made aware that conservation science is an important part of preserving cultural heritage. That's lacking.
Levin: It's been noted that there is an insufficient number of conservation scientists, as well as an insufficient set of opportunities for conservation scientists. How do we increase both of these areas simultaneously?
Khandekar: Angelica Rudenstine of the Mellon Foundation is helping to address these issues. She has created a number of endowed positions and a number of training opportunities, and in a relatively short amount of time, she has given us the opportunity to increase the population of conservation scientists and provide them with jobs when they finish their training.
McGlinchey: The Mellon Foundation has been fantastic, but I would hope to see additional granting foundations follow. It's great when outside organizations recognize the need. But it's absolutely critical that the need be recognized internally within the institution.
Khandekar: This ties in with what we were saying earlier about having directors and curators who are well versed in the benefits of conservation science. They're the people making the decisions about their museums. If you have directors who are supportive, then they can talk to the trustees. It may also be useful to have scientists as trustees. That's how you start changing the environment and making the scientists an integral part of museum work. That is when you start getting more funding and equipment. It comes from educating people early on.
Levin: What will this field look like fifteen years from now?
Burnstock: It's a resources issue. Institutions that have centralized resources are beginning to open up and facilitate research in collaboration with others. If that continues, or if there is direct funding for improving facilities in areas that require extra support for doing conservation science, one could expect a developing profession.
McGlinchey: I can only hope that we'll see progress. There are a number of scientific groups conducting research that have only recently been established. The ultimate benefits of their research remain to be seen.
Khandekar: Fifteen years ago we couldn't have anticipated what would happen now. Equally, I don't think that we can anticipate what will happen in the future. I know that the field will improve, but it is difficult to know in which ways.
Burnstock: Collaborations with other centralized institutions can and will benefit us if they continue in pursuit of excellent conservation science, focused by conservators. If these institutions change their policies about collaboration, then we're in great difficulty. It all depends on the goodwill and the opportunities to collaborate with other institutions.
McGlinchey: I talked a little bit about curators' concerns about fading. That's an example of their interest in preventing the collection from, to use an economic term, depreciating. But to flip that around, how can a scientist make the collection appreciate in value? Beyond addressing the kind of technical questions we've alluded to already, what kind of information can we provide that not only improves our understanding of works of art, but causes us to appreciate them more? That's an abstraction that I was thinking of when you asked how this field is going to be different fifteen years from now.
Khandekar: A collection appreciates in value when you understand it better. The work we do allows us to understand the collection better, so at a fundamental level, everything that we do helps us appreciate the collection.
McGlinchey: But does the curator recognize that?
Khandekar: We can talk to curators and help them understand that, and then we can also publish in journals that curators read—Burlington Magazine, Apollo, October, or Artforum. Exposure and understanding of what we do is crucial.
Burnstock: It's entirely necessary to communicate with both curators and people who understand the works that we are dealing with—their preservation and their historical context. That leads to an appreciation of collections and cultural heritage in general. And, of course, it contextualizes what we do.
Khandekar: There are museums like the National Gallery in London that have taken amazing steps toward that with their Art in the Making exhibitions and small specialized shows that combine art history, conservation, and conservation science, looking either at specific paintings or a small group of paintings. It doesn't just help the professionals—the public also finds these exhibitions very engaging. In England there's a great sense of ownership of the public collections. People enjoy learning more about what they perceive as their own.
Chiari: We should make an effort to digest and present our results to the general public and to try to make our presence more visible. That may mean concentrating less on presenting to the public the scientific details of our professional work—leaving that to the specialized journals—and concentrating more on how that work really enriches our understanding of the objects.
Burnstock: That sort of accessibility comes via collaboration with people who look at works of art, including the public, curators in museums, academics who study paintings, and conservators who look at their material nature and their preservation. And that, as Narayan has pointed out, includes compelling exhibitions and publications that result from those exhibitions that have been popular with the public. Making scientific knowledge accessible implies contextualization of the information and building a picture of the point of the scientific work—not just the pure analysis, which few will understand.