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Science illuminates history of artwork

Published: October 18, 2013
Section: News


The visual arts and sciences are commonly thought of as two separate fields of study, with little overlap between them. However, in his lecture “Science at the Art Museum,” Richard Newman, head of scientific research at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston, demonstrated the crucial role of scientific processes in understanding and preserving works of art.

The lecture took place Tuesday evening at the Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center. It was another installment of their Women in Science Initiative lecture series.

The research center at the MFA is one of the first of its kind in the country.

“Art museums understand the value of science,” Newman said in his presentation. “It is very important to artifact-focused research, the technical studies of art.”

Still, “in-house scientific research is expensive, and labs in museums are often not sustainable,” he said.

As a result, much of the scientific study of art today takes place in university museums, where there is scientific equipment available. Newman said that Europe continues to invest more money into the scientific study of art.

Through vivid photographs, Newman showed how chemical dating has helped art researchers trace art and artifacts back through history. In one case, artists and scientists in the research lab at the University of Perugia in Italy learned about life in Pompeii by chemically analyzing the pigment samples found in Pompeii’s paint shops and the silver content in their gold.

Research into “deterioration of art and development of new conservation materials” can lead to new ways of preserving art, he said.

Newman also noted the code of ethics in the scientific study of art: The research cannot do any damage or interfere with future analysis of the work.

“Nothing can last forever, but we try to ensure a lifespan of several hundred years for great works of art,” he said.