What Does a Museum Scientist Do?

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

The Brandywine Valley has a rich chemical heritage, starting with the founding of the DuPont chemical company. Several scientists who retired from local industries have found themselves putting their skills and expertise to excellent use in an unexpected place, a museum!

The second post in our series is from four volunteers working within the Scientific Research and Analysis Laboratory (SRAL) at Winterthur.

Judy 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. 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.”

Chris uses a gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer (GC-MS) to unravel molecular mysteries at Winterthur

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.

Mike uses a fiber optic reflectance spectrophotometer (FORS) to measure the thickness of coatings on Winterthur’s silver collection.

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!”

Mike uses his expertise from his long career at Agilent to teach conservators in Paris about identifying different types of lacquer.

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.”

The next post in our 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.

Details about current volunteering opportunities at Winterthur can be found here: https://www.winterthur.org/volunteer/

Post by: Dr. Rosie Grayburn, Associate Scientist and Head of the Scientific Research and Analytical Laboratory, Winterthur, with Winterthur Volunteers Dr. Judy Rudolph, Dr. Chris Petersen , Dr. Mike Crawford , and Dr. Mike Szelewski 

This entry was posted in Academic Programs, American Culture Studies, Art Conservation, Behind-the-Scenes, Conservation, Decorative Arts, Students & Alumni, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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