What does a Museum Scientist do?

Ever wonder what a museum scientist does? This series of blog posts will shed light on the varied work of museum scientists and how their work impacts museum collections.

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?

The first post in our series is from Dr. Rosie Grayburn and Catherine Matsen, scientists working within the Department of Conservation at Winterthur.

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.

Scientist 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.

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.

Associate Scientist 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.

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.

Next week we will hear how retired scientists from local industries in and around Wilmington are helping out in the science lab by volunteering their time.

If you would like to learn more about the work of the Winterthur scientists, join us on a special behind-the-scenes tour of the Conservation Department on 7/3. Details can be found at https://www.winterthur.org/visit/tours/current-tours/

Post by Dr. Rosie Grayburn, Associate Scientist and Head of the Scientific Research and Analytical Laboratory, and Catherine Matsen, Scientist, Winterthur

This entry was posted in Academic Programs, Art Conservation, collection, Conservation, Decorative Arts, museum collection, Students & Alumni and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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