A Marriage of Science and Art

The Huang Fellows take a tour into the bowels of the North Carolina Museum of Art – the Conservation Center – and learn about how art conservation comes alive by science.

Previously, if you had asked me to describe my interests, I would have painted you two distinct pictures. One, I was an aspiring scientist – I seek to explore phenomena, advancing the understanding and application of them. Two, I was a dabbling artist, painting and doodling in my free time, as I explored the beauty and tenderness of the lived experience. These were separate parts of me. The Huang Fellows’ visit to the North Carolina Museum of Art Conservation Center, however, challenged this perspective.

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During our visit, Noelle, the museum’s conservator of paintings, led us downstairs through a door boldly labeled, “STAFF ONLY.” The open doors revealed what initially appeared to be a regular art studio – a room with vaulted ceilings and large windows, tables covered with artwork and tools, and easels supporting rich oil paintings. However, there was more in the room than what initially met my eye. Next to the easels sat glass vials labeled with terms I had previously only seen in chemistry lab: “toluene”, “ethanol”, and “acetone.” Above a painting hovered a laser initially developed as medical technology. A book about conservation sat on the table, containing information about dipole moment and solubility. I realized that the conservation room was as much a laboratory as it was a studio.

Art conservators like Noelle work to examine, document, preserve, and restore the pieces that pass through the museum’s hands. As we sat in the foldable seats in the room, Noelle and the conservators explained some of the techniques they use for their work. I was again surprised to hear them used terms I had previously heard in my science classes. To assess the construction of the painting, the conservators utilize X-ray spectroscopy. With tools such as isotopic analysis, objects conservators deduce where each part of a sculpture comes from.

As I listened to these different methods, all utilizing scientific principles and innovation, I realized that conservation is truly a marriage of art and science. Advancements in science have allowed art to be analyzed with integrity and in a non-destructive way, and in turn, art has broadened the scope of scientific application. There is a bridge – a direct, mutually beneficial bridge – between the two domains.

Sitting in the room, however, another thought nagged at the back of my mind. For some reason, I had always assumed (perhaps somewhat naively) that artwork dating from centuries ago traveled from the original artists’ hands to modern museums untarnished. Conservation works to keep art and culture alive, but does it sometimes infringe upon the original artist’s work? For paintings with patches of damage, art conservators fill in those spots – but that may require some inference the artist’s intent. How do conservators maintain a responsibility to the art and its original artist, as well as the museum and the public?

I realized that conservation is truly a marriage of art and science.

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These are some of the ethical considerations that Noelle and the conservators grapple with on a daily basis. Art conservation, as we learned from our visit, is a lot less straightforward than it sounds. However, there are some ethical principles that conservators always abide by. One principle is reversibility: all additions made by conservators to paintings and objects are reversible. Noelle passed around a jar of special conservation paint – a medium she works with on her restoration projects. She explained that although using non-oil-based paints makes it more noticeable that a painting was restored, it enables her to document her work and reverse it if necessary.

Many times, the conservators don’t grapple with these ethical considerations on their own either; instead, they collaborate, consulting other scholars, technicians, and conservators from around the globe. For example, the leading objects conservator at the museum had to decide to how to present a statue of Dionysus – its Roman image, Renaissance image, or some part of both? To make these judgements, she collaborated with art history specialists from Europe, as well as engineers and other scientists. Many of the decisions in art conservation come to fruition through a collaborative process.

As the Huang Fellows left the museum’s conservation room, I realized that this room carried more than just a marriage of art and science. It hosted an open dialogue not just between art and science but also with ethics and collaboration as well. As Huang Fellows, we can also keep the ethical implications of our own research in mind, thinking about how its implications and how our work might impact people. We can also consider how our work falls into a broader project, and how we can collaborate with different people working toward that goal. These are lessons from art conservation that we can take into our own lives not only as scientists but also individuals in society.

As Huang Fellows, we can also keep the ethical implications of our own research in mind, thinking about how its implications and how our work might impact people.

Olivia Liu, Huang Fellow ’18

Olivia LiuOlivia is interested in majoring in chemistry and minoring in history or psychology. As a Huang Fellow, she is excited to bridge her scientific interest with her passion in the humanities and arts.