Teen Blog

Art Detectives practiced close observation of artworks in the Guggenheim museum galleries and learned scientific examination techniques used to identify and authenticate materials in works of art in the conservation lab.


What do conservators and scientists do?

VIONNIE KHONG: The job of conservators and scientists is to collaborate with a committee of people from different fields of science to determine the best plan of action to maintain the condition of an artwork. The scientists identify materials that are needed to maintain and restore the artwork. The conservators and scientists determine the best course of treatment that respects the artwork’s cultural origins. Conservators must consider things like the fragility and the environment to maintain the artwork’s quality. Both conservators and scientists must have a team of people who are able to work collaboratively.

Art Detectives in the conservation lab. Photo: Filip Wolak © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

ROSAMARIA GARCES: Conservators and scientists pool their resources to study, restore, and preserve artifacts and art. Using various methods, tools, and the latest technology, professionals ascertain the artist’s intentions so the work can be presented in exhibits as accurately as possible. Such intimacy with historic and contemporary pieces also allows for further investigation of their context, material, and purpose. The conservation lab is organized with enough room for pieces to come in and out, no matter their size. It includes elevators, tables, and canvas setups to accommodate the various shapes and sizes of pieces. There are multiple machines and tools in designated areas that are used to examine and preserve art. Files for each work entering the lab are completed and managed with treatment notes passed down from other exhibitions, giving conservators a brief history of the piece.

Conservators and scientists first focus on analyzing the numerous aspects of their given art piece, closely examining its context, materials, and intentions. For instance, identifying the paints and canvas used in an artwork are leading clues that allow professionals to find an approach to conservation. Magnification is primarily used to observe artworks on a microscopic level because every detail of a piece matters. Brushes of various shapes and sizes are used for retouching and cleaning. Spectroscopes are used to examine the spectrum of light reflected by pieces and a blacklight is used to reveal what may not be seen at first glance. For example, ultraviolet light may illustrate retouches that were made in the past.

Take-home art kit for Art Detectives. Photo: Rosamaria Garces

MIRANDA KIMM: To collect data in the lab, scientists and conservators use X-ray Fluorescence, or XRF. XRF involves scanning a piece of art with an X-ray to see pigments on or beneath the surface. It is non-invasive, meaning that it does not involve physically interfering with the piece, so it is ideal for delicate works that conservators want to handle carefully. 

Reading technical data collected through X-ray fluorescence (XRF). Photo: Filip Wolak © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

ONDRE NELSON: Conservators and scientists specialize in conserving and preserving the different art works seen in museums. They first work to analyze the materials in art to then determine the best preservation method. Part of their job is to deeply analyze painting materials and determine if the painting is authentic. Attribution is aided by analyzing pigments and other materials within the paintings.

In the lab, conservators and scientists use a variety of tools in order to determine if a painting has the correct attribution and to study its condition. One tool commonly used by conservators and scientists are scalpels. With scalpels, scientists take microscopic samples of a painting in order to analyze its components and materials, which is then examined under a microscope. Microscopes are also fundamental tools in art conservation. Microscopes enable scientists to get a more detailed look on the surface of an artwork for further analysis of the piece. Another important tool scientists and conservators use is a black light, also known as ultraviolet (UV) light. These lights illuminate the surface of the painting differently depending on the material or pigments used. 

In a conservation lab, visitors must be mindful of their bodies and clothing so as to not accidentally disturb or damage artworks. Conservators often wear gloves before handling any type of artwork. Another protocol is to use goggles when dealing with ultraviolet radiation lights because it can be permanently damaging to the eyes of the examiner. Paintings, when moved, must be handled with caution to avoid damaging the piece.

Since paintings and other creations are made from an abundance of different materials different methods must be used. Scientists often use X-ray fluorescence to identify the elements within paintings and to find things beneath paintings. Scientists also use infrared scans to penetrate the painting and see underlying sketches and drawings.

Using ultraviolet (UV) light on sample mock-up paintings. Photo: Filip Wolak © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

What have you learned about Jackson Pollock and Pablo Picasso?

NOAH SCHROEDER: During my visit to the Guggenheim Museum, I learned that Jackson Pollock’s art style often had a specific rhythm, whether completely intentional or not, that created certain motifs and patterns. One quote from the artist that I found in the museum that exemplifies this is “When you are painting out your unconscious, figures are bound to emerge.” This represents the subconscious patterns in many of Pollock’s artworks, such as the face-like shapes in the art shown below, along with a controlled manner of creating his paintings through the use of techniques such as pouring paint on top of a canvas or dripping paint down. Therefore, Pollock was able to express his inner mind which gave way to a surreal, yet relatable, style.

Jackson Pollock’s Mural (1943) at the Guggenheim Museum. Photo: Noah Schroeder

CLIO GOUREVITCH: While Jackson Pollock is best known for his splattered or poured paintings, a large part of the beginning of his career was more representational. His technique developed from using an easel and brushes to painting on the floor with brushes and sticks that didn’t always touch the canvas. He often painted on canvas, but he also used materials such as masonite as a base. For paints, instead of using artist paints such as oil or acrylic, he frequently used oil-based alkyd industrial paint used for houses.

Pablo Picasso had an extremely long career, stretching from the very beginning of the 20th century all the way up to his death in 1973. Throughout these years, he went through a series of painting styles or periods based on his feelings or interests at the time. For example, his blue period was prompted by financial struggles and difficult emotions, but was soon followed by his rose period, prompted by new lovers and improved mood. Like Pollock, he liked certain enamel paints due to their glossiness.

One contributes to the attribution of an artwork by doing a series of scientific tests on it, as well as inspecting it with a microscope. One test is Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR). For FTIR, one must collect a sample of the painting using the end of a scalpel and place it in the machine which will tell you the pigments and binders most likely present in the sample. Another test is X-ray fluorescence (XRF), in which one uses an x-ray machine to discover which elements were used in specific spots of a painting. Another test is UV, in which a painting is placed under UV light which can reveal certain materials such as optical brighteners. This can help prove that a painting was or was not painted during the correct time period. Another test is Infrared Reflectography (IR) which uses infrared waves to reveal any underpaintings or sketches. All of these tests together, along with the expertise of an art historian, can authenticate an artwork.

Looking at paintings in the Guggenheim Museum. Photo: Filip Wolak © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

RYAN SCHROEDER: When learning about Picasso, one of the things that really stood out to me was the hidden figures inside of Picasso’s The Blue Room (1901). Through infrared reflectography, conservators were able to find out that underneath these paintings, there were previously underpaintings with a different composition. This is interesting because it highlights how important these technologies are. Without infrared reflectography, the hidden painting would be lost forever, and knowing it is there completely reframes how we view the artwork. While there is an argument that because Picasso covered up the underpainting we should ignore it, I personally feel that it is a critical part of the discussion around the painting.

Examining a sample mock-up “Picasso” painting. Photo: Filip Wolak © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

How is art conservation and cultural heritage science related to issues that you care about?

JAIDA SAHIN: Art conservation and cultural heritage science greatly tie into the issues that I care about. For example, historical education is very important to me. I believe that societies should be educated on past cultures and events in order to effectively progress and move forward. Art conservation preserves material manifestations of history and enables future generations to learn from them. 

Exploring what teens know about art conservation and cultural heritage science at Bard Graduate Center. Photo: Alessandro Cerdas © Bard Graduate Center

CLAIRE JUDICE: Art conservation and cultural heritage science is incredibly important in establishing the age and origin of a piece of artwork, and what techniques and materials were used to create it. Doing in-depth analysis on materials and techniques used in works of art is vital to limiting the deterioration of said works and keeping the integrity of the works. Knowing the history surrounding a piece of artwork may be crucial in better understanding the artist’s message. I find both keeping an artwork’s integrity and message alive incredibly valuable. Conserving and sharing the history of an artwork allows viewers of the work like myself to experience the piece as it would have been experienced when first created, and gives aspiring artists the opportunity to see and be inspired by truly authentic works by incredibly influential artists.  

Close observation of a sample mock-up painting in the conservation lab. Photo: Filip Wolak © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

DAVIS LUENGTHADA: The devastation of war not only takes lives and destroys homes, but it also often lays waste to art that embodies the cultural heritage of these war-torn nations. Palmyra in Syria is an example of a cultural site decimated by a decades-long civil war. As a consequence, the job of art conservators and the role of cultural heritage science are especially critical in countries where there is armed conflict. However, while it may seem as simple as having trained professionals restore these damaged pieces of art to their original form, we must also consider the ethical issues involved. 

Art is much more than just something to display in your living room. Art is an outlet for someone to express themselves and it can also be a manifestation of someone’s history or culture. In war, if we cannot save the citizens of these countries, the art left behind is a way to honor them and keep their memory alive.

Davis Luengthada interviews Jennifer Mass, Ph.D., Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Cultural Heritage Science, Bard Graduate Center.

DAVIS: How far should we go in restoring art destroyed by war? If we fully restore the art back to its original form, we would be losing the history it went through during the war; however, if we do not restore the art, it may lose its original artistic intent and significance since the art may no longer bear any resemblance to its original form. 

DR. MASS: When art has been damaged in an armed conflict there are many factors to consider with respect to its conservation. One of them is whether you want to repair/restore all of the damage, or if you want to let some of it remain as a testament of the social trauma that the object has ‘witnessed’. Increasing importance is being placed on object biography, in which evidence of a work’s use and life history is preserved rather than just focusing on preserving the appearance of the piece. 

These situations really have to be examined on a case-by-case basis, but leaving some evidence of wartime damage can allow the object to function as a powerful historical and educational document, and so I believe that this approach has quite a bit of merit.

DAVIS: Dr. Mass believes that restoring certain aspects of the art and leaving some remnants of the damage from war is a viable approach to conservation. It can actually be extremely moving to at least acknowledge the “object biography” of the art because, as Dr. Mass says, it shows the “trauma” the art went through. In a way it personifies the art and gives it its own history and life which allows us to connect even more with it.

Dr. Jennifer Mass with Art Detectives. Photo: Filip Wolak © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.

What are future career pathways for teens interested in art and science?

AVA ZHANG: Many see art and science as two parallel fields, but in reality, they are inseparable and knowledge of both fields is needed in order to best understand and preserve artworks for future generations. In order to analyze, preserve, and come to conclusions about an artwork, people from all art and science disciplines come together to make that happen. For teens interested in the arts and science, possible career pathways can be split into three different categories: art history, art conservation, and conservation science. Pathways in art history can include art historians, who look into the history of art, its provenance, and help with the attribution of art by examination of the style of the artists and data from art conservators and technical analysis. In art conservation, we have art conservators who help preserve art from deteriorating and art restorers who help fix and restore damaged works. In order to do so the assistance of chemistry, biology, physics, engineering, and various other professions comes into play. Art conservators need a degree in a field of science, which can be very crucial to understanding the technical analysis of the work. In addition, they tend to work in teams and so this field is truly made up of people from all disciplines, including sound engineers, biologists, chemists, paper and material conservators, physicists, environmentalists, and many more STEM professions that people do not usually associate with the arts. Museum work involves art curators, registrars, and museum staff who handle the transportation of the artwork and its installation. Art historians may also deal with the business of selling and buying art at auctions or between people. There truly are a great variety of professions that apply the knowledge of science to better understand the history of each artwork.

Ava Zhang interviews Jennifer Mass, Ph.D., Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Cultural Heritage Science, Bard Graduate Center.

AVA: What do you like about your job right now? What was the most fascinating thing about it or the memory associated with it?

DR. MASS: I love that my job allows me to learn more about the past, about artists’ practices, and about how objects of art change over time. One of the most fascinating things about my work has been the diversity of artworks I have studied, from weathervanes to furniture to antiquities. I have particularly enjoyed studying the materials and techniques of Henri Matisse and Paul Cezanne, understanding at a microscopic and sometimes even a molecular level how they created their signature painting styles and effects. I have greatly enjoyed researching how their pigments such as cadmium yellow and emerald green have reacted with the environment, changing how we see the works of these painters over time.

AVA: What was your journey of discovering your career like? How did you finally settle in this profession or did you always know you wanted to do this?

DR. MASS: I was always interested in both science (particularly chemistry) and the decorative arts – I loved going to historic house museums when I was growing up!  I went to a liberal arts college so that I could study both, majoring in chemistry and taking art history classes too. I then did my Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry, making synthetic gemstones, and applied to art museums to do postdoctoral research. I wound up doing my postdoctoral fellowship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, working on the Greek and Roman collection, which combined my love of science and antiquities. 

AVA: Are there any tips you have for people that are interested in or considering an interdisciplinary profession in the arts and sciences?

DR. MASS: People who are considering a career that combines the sciences and arts should strongly consider a liberal arts college so that they have the opportunity to do in-depth study in both areas. They should also read up on the field of art conservation, one of the best fields for people who have interest and aptitude in both areas.

Dr. Jennifer Mass in the conservation lab. Photo: Filip Wolak © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

Leon Cherry interviews Erich Uffelman, Ph.D., Bentley Professor of Chemistry, Washington and Lee University. 

LEON: What advice would you give a student who wants to go into the field that you are currently in? 

DR. UFFELMAN: For a student in high school, my advice would be to take as much math and science as possible and to get as much practice writing as possible. Doing that will not only prepare a student to do what I am currently doing, but to take all kinds of tracks in life (science, technology, health professions, business consulting, patent law, etc).

LEON: What would you say is the future of art conservation? 

DR. UFFELMAN: Well, I am not an art conservator, but from my observations, the future in the field will continue to demand practitioners with an excellent sense of art history, superior hand and studio art skills, and a reasonable training in the fundamentals of chemistry and physics. 

LEON: What are some of the most fulfilling moments in your career? 

DR. UFFELMAN: My career has spanned 40 years in science research and 28 years as a chemistry professor, so this is a very difficult question! I have solved some challenging scientific problems in my time, which, although they are probably too technical to describe here, are a source of great satisfaction to me. I also find tremendous fulfillment in the success of my students, so that is a continuous source of joy.

Dr. Erich Uffelman in the Guggenheim Museum with Art Detectives. Photo: Filip Wolak © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

ANYA: Over the course of Art Detectives, we have seen the many intersections of art and science. For the Guggenheim conservators, many of them started in art history and made their way into conservation. However, some cultural heritage scientists started in a much more specialized scientific field (predominantly chemistry) and used their studies to work in art conservation. It has been fascinating to interact with our instructors who are just as dedicated to art as they are to science, as I have only known these two fields to be completely separate with little room for interdisciplinary study. For people who want to intersect art and science, cultural heritage science, art conservation, and material culture are all fields that allow for the study of both art and science.

Anya Chu interviews Erich Uffelman, Ph.D., Bentley Professor of Chemistry, Washington and Lee University.

ANYA: How did you get into cultural heritage science (or just science for that matter)? What was the first step?

DR. UFFELMAN: I got into science very early. I was two weeks short of being seven years old when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. I had been swept away by the Apollo program. And then I learned that Neil Armstrong had the same birthday as I did, and I told everyone for a month!  started reading adult astronomy books in second and third grade, and I vividly remember Apollo 13. My parents’ best friends were a couple who we met when I was seven, and he was a chemist, and, for reasons I do not have time to write, he rapidly became my hero. I feel so sorry for the world right now, because the fact that we developed not one, not two, but three effective vaccines for the Corona virus in about ten months is a human achievement on par with Apollo 11, and most people just do not understand what a marker this is in the history of human civilization. It is even more bitter that so many do not believe in either the existence of the virus or the efficacy of the vaccine.

ANYA: You have talked a lot about the Dutch masters/17th century; what is it that attracts you to these works?

DR. UFFELMAN: I feel a strong attraction to the Dutch Golden Age painters because they were my entry into appreciating art. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania, in a town with one stoplight that was a four-hour drive or more from any major city. My father was an English professor, and when I was fifteen, he took a four-month sabbatical to England and took us all along with him. Among many other incredible things, I got to visit several major museums for the first time. Most of the art I saw I did not like, and I did not understand it (remember, I was 15). But I thought I understood the 17th century Dutch masters, and I really gravitated to their “realism” and their incredible technique. Well, of course, I did not actually understand the 17th century Dutch masters at all, and I did not understand that their paintings were realistic in appearance, but were frequently not actually portraying real things. But the key was the interest, which then got me reading about them and studying them and, when I got to college, I went to museums at every possible opportunity and studied the paintings. My tastes expanded; my understanding expanded; and that continues today. But the 17th century Dutch paintings were my entryway into the game, and they will always be special to me. In addition, it was all of those years of spare time reading (I never have had an art history course!) that enabled me to start teaching technical art history, and it was the teaching of technical art history that got me doing research in the field. I was trained as a synthetic inorganic chemist at Bucknell and Caltech and Stanford, so the switch would not have been possible without years of passionate study “on the side.”

ANYA: What advice do you have for future conservators/cultural heritage scientists?

DR. UFFELMAN: My advice would be to learn to write well, and to study as much art and math and chemistry and physics as possible. But my other advice is to remember to share the wonder with others. The things we all learned together are absolutely important, but the relationships, whether they last just a few days or for a lifetime, are what actually matter. Anya, you are very young. The thing that you will have to fight as you get older is cynicism. Try not to succumb to it. There is an infinity of interesting things to learn and do, and such a finite time in which to do it. Stay involved as much as you can, and always try to find people to share things with you.

Dr. Erich Uffelman with Art Detectives. Photo: Filip Wolak © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation