The survival of artworks depends on the science of art conservation.

It is Tuesday morning, and I have just gotten off a shuttle from the Arthur M. Sackler Museum and arrived in Somerville, Mass. I am in front of an empty-looking office building next to a vacant lot. Disoriented, I enter through double doors and I am told by a security guard to go to the second floor. I take the elevator up and I find the floor completely empty. No offices, no signs, no people. After doing several confused loops around the space, I tentatively knock at a locked side door until another guard sees me and lets me inside.

Despite the odd surroundings, the room I have just entered is home to advanced and prestigious work. I have arrived at the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, an art conservation center for the Harvard Art Museums that repairs an immense spectrum of artwork, from antiques to contemporary paintings and installation pieces. Originally located in the Fogg Museum on the Harvard campus, the Straus Center has moved to a temporary location in Somerville while the museum undergoes renovation and will remain there for the next few years. As Henry Lie, the director and senior conservator of objects and sculpture at the Center, gives me a tour of the space, I am amazed to see the wide array of scientific equipment that the Straus Center holds. From microscopes to laser cleaners to infrared spectrometers, this expensive technical equipment is disconnected from stereotypical art creation.

But science actually plays a central role in the world of art conservation. The interplay between studio art, science, and art history is the foundation of this often untold and unseen side of the art world. Even though audiences are able to see these works due to the conservation, the process responsible for each well presented painting in a museum is as invisible as the secluded Straus Center itself. Working behind the scenes, conservators engage heavily in the aesthetic and scientific components of both preservation and restoration. They are responsible for an integral part of the life cycle of a work of art and preserving the artistic vision of these works for history.


The Straus Center was the first institution in the United States to use scientific methods to study artists’ materials and techniques, with the collaboration of Edward Forbes, the first director of the Harvard museums, and Rutherford Gettens, a chemist, in 1928, and others. The technical research and preservation work conducted at the Straus Center were disseminated into the teaching of art history at Harvard, influencing generations of art historians and museum professionals.

Modern conservation uses cutting-edge technology to examine works or break down compounds in artistic materials. “UV fluorescence microscopy and polarized light microscopy are used a lot,” says Lie. “Looking in UV often shows the paint layers much better so that you can better get an idea of how the artist worked and what materials are present.”

The use of technology, however, is only one facet of the conservation process. Research, particularly into the artists behind the works, is important in determining what kind of conservation is appropriate. Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, the director of the Center for the Technical Study of Modern Art at Harvard Art Museums, is also the founder of the Artists Documentation Program, which is a partnership between the Menil Collection in Houston, Harvard Art Museums, and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. The Artists Documentation Program makes it its job to interview contemporary artists about their work in order to reach a better understanding of how the artists wish for their art to be conserved. “It’s really important to ask these questions to artists while they are alive for the future generation of conservators,” Mancusi-Ungaro says. Through these interviews and film and photograph documentation, the Artists Documentation Project strives to honor the artists’ intent for the future preservation of works of art.

Preserving the aesthetics of a work is not only a matter of figuring out an artist’s technique and materials but also, depending on the age of the work, a matter of history. Mei-An Tsu, an object conservator at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, is currently working on restoring two Etruscan sarcophagi on display at the museum. Because the sarcophagi are too fragile to be moved, the conservation work is done on site and is available for public view. “I conduct a scientific investigation to look into how [the sarcophagi] were originally manufactured, and what they would have originally looked like,” Tsu says. “They would have been very ornately painted, and so a big question that art historians pose to us is, ‘What did these once look like? What did Etruscans use for paint? What types of stones were used?’” This interplay between art history, science, and technical skills in conservation is what makes the work so multifaceted and at the same time so hidden away—much of the procedure and instruments used requires very specific conditions that are most often found in labs. Though the works conservators preserve are displayed, the nature of their practice requires seclusion.


Working with a plethora of laboratory equipment in an array of disciplines to produce something intended to go unnoticed takes years of practice and training. Who exactly are the people willing to put in such effort? Penley Knipe, the head of the paper conservation lab at the Straus Center, became a conservator because of her interest in the material world. “I was an anthropology and archeology major in college, and so I was always drawn to objects,” she says. Initially working in the Harvard Art Museums drawing department, she developed an interest in conservation. “I’ve always loved looking at things really intensely and trying to see how they were made, and so I just changed my course because I really wanted to spend time with the material objects.”

Anne Driesse, another conservator in the paper conservation department at the Straus Center, came from an academic background perfect for conservation. “At college I majored in art history and [got] a minor in chemistry with a third concentration in studio art,” she says. “I wanted to be able to somehow combine all of those facets, and I started working with a painting conservator and a paper conservator at the Cooper Hewitt Museum [in New York, NY]. I was drawn to watercolor and drawing—I had a natural affinity for paper conservation.” Both Knipe and Driesse, like all other conservators, had to go through years of study and fellowships in order to secure their positions. The conservators not only possess highly specialized skill sets but a combination of technical and aesthetic abilities that is unique to their profession.

The technical skills required for art conservation can overlap with those found in chemistry and microbiology. For example, Archana Vasanthakumar, a post-doctorate fellow in the Laboratory of Applied Microbiology at Harvard, works in conservation science. “One of the big focuses of the lab over the last 10 years or so has been cultural heritage microbiology,” Vasanthakumar says. “By this I mean the microbiology of anything that is historically or culturally significant, from manuscripts to old books to monuments to paintings.” Technical expertise allows art conservators to be highly exacting in their work; this degree of care is highly necessary. In examining these cultural objects from a scientific standpoint as well as an artistic one, it is a requirement for conservators to be extremely detail-oriented in their work. If they are not careful in their analysis of material, they could jeopardize the preservation of important historical findings.

Thus, for a conservator, even the act of cleaning dirt from a statue is fraught with risk. The wrong use of equipment, a chemical cleaner, or a rough hand could all affect the outcome of the finished product. “You have to be able to technically do the cleaning with sensitivity, and that’s where the artistic skills come into play,” Tsu says. “You have to have a really good eye and dexterity.” Although to the common museum visitor the pristine state of the pieces in a collection is a given, in reality there is an entire faction of conservators working behind the scenes to restore the art.


Whether the flaws are as obvious as cracks in an ancient statue or as subtle as the fading of ink on old parchment, when an object needs restoration, it is brought back to the lab. Tests are done so that the most information possible is procured about the piece, but this is simple compared to the balancing task at hand; conservators must weigh making needed repairs against upholding the artistic integrity of the work.


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