Science, Art Fuse in Art Conservation Lecture

While the
lab coat of a physics major isn’t typically stocked with paint brushes, science
and the arts are not, in fact, opposing courses of study. The two go hand in
hand in the area of art conservation to overcome a variety of issues including
damage prevention, authenticity verification and material
identification. 

Jerry
Podany, the senior conservator of the Department of Antiquities Conservation at
the Getty Museum, explained this relationship in his lecture, “In Between
‘Before’ and ‘After’: the Hidden Interactions within Heritage Conservation”
Oct. 7 at Scripps College’s Boone Recital Hall. A graduate of Claremont
Graduate University, Podany has trained in both material science and studio
art.

Podany
discussed the ‘in between’ moments of art conservation that often go unnoticed by
the public: the documenting, the scientific research and the communal approach
to analyzing an antiquity. He referred to a number of case studies that have required
the joint effort of science and art conservation. 

Imagine
the ground violently shaking and the windows of the building you’re in cracking
and shattering. Huge, precious statues tumble to the ground all around you. Priceless
items and historical pieces often lay broken on the ground in the aftermath of
earthquakes, some never to be seen again. This is where science comes in.

“How do you take
objects, particularly heavy ones, and keep them safe as well as keep the
viewers safe?” asked Eric Doehne, a Scripps visiting lecturer in art conservation. He teaches a course called “Art
Conservation: Art Forensics: Plunder, Fakes, and Crime.”

Podany addressed
Doehne’s question by example, describing a two-year project on statues and
earthquakes involving the collaboration of mechanics, engineers, art
conservators, seismic experts and more. Old methods employed a bolt screwed
into the head of a statue attached to a large stand, which was neither
aesthetically pleasing nor particularly effective. With the work of all these
professionals, though, a new system is now in place, which involves putting internal pins
through the stand on which the piece rests. 

The
audience cheered as Podany streamed a video of an earthquake simulation using
such technology. With that problem solved, Podany went on to discuss to the authenticity
of historical pieces of art. 

“Museum
curators often turn to conservators and the scientists to advise them on an
object’s authenticity or to what degree it may have been altered,” he said.

How exactly can
a conservator distinguish a real piece from a fake one? Podany showed rather than directly answer this question, inviting a student in the audience to put on gloves and carefully hold a ‘priceless’ artifact covered in rust and lichen. Upon examining the aged metal
bowl, Podany revealed the item’s age—a mere 30 years.

Objects can often
appear to be legitimate at first glance, but it takes more than a simple pair
of eyes to determine the truth. Science, again, enters the realm of art.

“There are
things that the analytical scientist can determine that the conservator can’t,”
Podany said. “So multiple experts are needed.”

Determining the
authenticity of an antiquity is a difficult and interdisciplinary task, often
requiring the attention of forensic analysts, art historians, chemists and
other specialists. Those involved must have extensive knowledge of the materials
used at the time and historical context of art being made at the time, as well as
the tools and machines that can allow scientists to acquire this information
without compromising the integrity of the piece.

Podany displayed
a number of examples of this process through before and after photographs but
reminded audience members that the key to authenticity is in the ‘in-between’
stages where science and art combine.

The combination
of arts and sciences into one field of study is a unique program of which Scripps
has recently become a part. Doehne gave art history professor Mary
MacNaughton, director of the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery, credit for creating
the conservation major “with a lot of effort and heart.”

Art conservation
majors filled the audience, many of whom asked questions for over an hour after
the lecture’s scheduled end. Doehne said that the growing field is a perfect fit for
students with “an interest in science and a passion for art.” Because of the field’s interdisciplinary
nature, everyone, Podany included, can have their own take on it.

“I think that
it’s very clear [Podany] is more on the art side than the science side,” Alex
Watson SC ’15 said. “ I also think that the way he talked about the science was
very respectful towards it, and he very clearly correlated the two.”

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