Chemistry and Materials Research at the Interface between Science and Art: Thoughts from an NSF Workshop co-sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Northwestern University

In July, I was invited to participate in a National Science Foundation workshop entitled “Chemistry and Materials Research at the Interface between Science and Art.”  I had the good fortune to participate with a variety of scientists from the United States and other parts of the world.

In the month since the event took place, I’ve gained some perspective on the NSF workshop.  Its intent was to address tough questions about conservation science. How do you advance the science of art conservation and engage top scientists from around the world?  More importantly, how do you make the case that conservation science is a “real” science with real scientific problems, and not simply an application of science to eye-catching and titillating issues? And lastly, how to you gain research funding that’s in the big leagues, like the National Science Foundation?

The structure of the workshop took the form of a series of breakout sessions focused around challenge questions.  The first challenge question focused on advancing analytical technologies for the study of irreplaceable and precious objects.  The second challenge question focused on understanding materials degradation in cultural heritage. The third challenge question focused on developing methods for stabilization and repair of materials. The final session of the day included a discussion on how scientific research on cultural heritage has a broader impact and a discussion on general challenges to conservation science. We left a lot of average ideas–and some great ideas–in the hands of the workshop steering committee.

I’ve recently noticed a trend toward bringing together experts to brainstorm about a particular problem.  NCPTT’s mission includes the goal of convening experts.  At this time last year, I attended a Summit of Research Scientists at the Library of Congress to discuss the state of preservation research.  But these meetings trouble me.  I enjoy the trips, the ability to share fresh ideas, and the chance tom meet old and new friends. But where are the results?

I know that results take time and perhaps I’m too influenced by the immediacy of our technology-driven age.  Maybe the outcomes of these meetings are not conveyed to the participants.  Sometimes the meetings are justifications for an organization’s actions or are used in strategic planning to establish research agendas.  Sometimes the great ideas seem to be left on the table.

Wouldn’t it be nice to see the results of brainstorming and planning efforts within six months of a meeting?  I’d like to see actions moving us forward.  I’d like to see the truly new partnerships that were supposed to grow out of a meeting like the NSF workshop.  But I’m reminded that research generally doesn’t grow out of committee and consensus.  Rather, sound research comes out of sometimes lonely work, swimming upstream against the current trends of science.

Conservation research advances when we make unusual connections between what we know and what we don’t know. And to do our best work, we need real funding to make it happen.

I’m hopeful that the National Science Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon foundation got the information that they hoped from the workshop.  I’m hopeful they might be able to use this information to shape grant funding in the future.  I hope when the time comes I might have that right research spark to convence them to fund my work.  Until then, I’m waiting.

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One Response to Chemistry and Materials Research at the Interface between Science and Art: Thoughts from an NSF Workshop co-sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Northwestern University

  1. Thoughtful post, Mary. I share your frustration with good ideas, insightful plans and energizing exchanges fading into silence like echoes in the meeting hotel hallways. There seems to be so much that never gets acted upon for the lack of a structured platform for their discussion, evaluation and development. Even if a new idea or technology was found ultimately to be flawed and abandoned, a real-time, open-participation wiki platform would at least document the flaws of the approach for all to understand and benefit from. The O’Keeffe Museum has been working with the GCI Museum Lighting project as a case study for the uses of the Micro fade tester (MFT) to improve best practices for the preservation of light sensitive materials. This has put me tangentially adjacent to pathways of discussions between and about scientists using the MFT around the world. The discussions about both the physics, chemistry and human biology of color and light-induced color changes are thorough and technically discussed at a very high level. I am always impressed by the systematic, extraordinarily hard and persistent work of conservation scientists. But at least tangentially, these scientists appear very hesitant, occasionally drifting toward implied threats of violent retaliation, to share developmental information with scientists and, (god forbid), conservators and the general public; Discussing information not thoroughly validated, tested, legally qualified and irrefutably agreed upon is akin to opening yourself up to intellectual theft and professional ridicule. Like the NSF funding process itself, the development of scientific knowledge in conservation follows a rather dysfunctional model where the value and robust nature of a new scientific methodology or material must be secretly fully developed and tested before approval is given to fund and “explore” the idea in the professional arena. In reality, the true developmental work has already been done in a dark, back room, silently, in isolation and hiding and only after the developer is certain of its validity is the idea floated in the literature. Call it fear or failure or fear of flying, fear of unqualified or unsuitable use, but the conservation scientific community appears to follow a very circumspect, rarefied and restrictive set of secret society protocols. Discussions of broadly accessible Wiki’s for the development of conservation science ideas are met with hostility as much as resistance and the net result is that many conservators are annoyed. Young conservators are suspicious, cynical and disengaged. If they can’t participate early on, see the mistakes and misunderstandings, the new generation of conservators are not interested in adopting the technologies.

    The conventional developmental model is like a tightly constrictive funnel where a lot of creative, insightful and poorly resolved new ideas get clogged and slowed and stifled and where a few random surviving ideas get fully developed by a very small group of people. I sense that there is a new generation of conservators who are looking for a very different paradigm; one where a lot of creative, insightful and poorly resolved ideas get pushed and pulled and tested and developed very quickly by a large number of people all at once and where robust technologies and methodologies get refined, perfected and more importantly adopted very quickly. This is a paradigm where the participatory process is more important than the academic accolades earned by the lone risk-taker. What does and doesn’t work gets evaluated, discussed, tested, documented and understood at a much accelerated rate, benefiting from the parallel development of related or analogous ideas in other fields.

    For these reasons, I see conservation science and conservation practice drifting further and further apart. The present, often discussed dissatisfaction with conservation journals and newsletters is just a symptom. The new generation of conservators rejects the validity and value of the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” approach to PhD level research. They believe they have discovered a better way to develop new, sophisticated knowledge using broadly-based, open-source, open-think, real-time, collaborative wiki platforms and they work tirelessly to find new ways to prove themselves right. I think it only a matter of time until they find high-level funders who are willing to finance their process at levels that will make the NSF process look like a quaint and curious fossil of 19th century thinking. At that point, good ideas at symposia and meetings won’t be tabled, footnoted and forgotten; they will be picked up and devoured by interested and engaged conservators and conservation scientists, working in tandem and the results will astonish us.

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