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.

National Center for Preservation Technology and Training
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Email: ncptt[at]
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