The IMA Laboratory: Crossroads Between Art and Science

Dr. Gregory Dale Smith

By: Dr. Gregory Dale Smith - Otto N. Frenzel III Senior Conservation Scientist, Indianapolis Museum of Art

Categories: Arts and Culture, Life Sciences

The Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) science lab represents one of a handful of facilities in the U.S. devoted to understanding and protecting artwork. The lab staff aspires to grow in both technology and personnel, as well as to develop partnerships and research collaborations with Indianapolis’ community of life science companies. The materials and techniques used in the museum laboratory are not all that different from those in pharmaceutical or industrial materials. We can benefit from the experience and technology of life scientists here in Indiana, and in return offer them an intriguing experience at the interface between the Arts and the Sciences.

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A small cohort of scientists at the IMA Conservation Science Lab works to understand and protect the institution’s encyclopedic art collections. This relatively new science facility, constructed in 2010 with funding from the Lilly Endowment, Inc., hosts an arsenal of state-of-the-art instruments for identifying and characterizing the myriad of metals, pigments, fibers, polymers, and dyes that constitute modern and historic artworks: gas and liquid chromatographs, mass spectrometers, optical and electron microscopes, calorimeters, and laser spectrometers.

We manage numerous analytical projects at any one time. These can include studies of space-age materials like synthetic resin varnishes and modern polymeric paints, but also samples requiring organic analysis of biomolecules familiar to Indy’s life scientists like flavanoid dyes, fatty acid drying oils, and tenacious protein-based glues. The artistic license to freely mix materials to achieve specific effects, the natural biodiversity of many organic constituents, and the overlapping presence of degradation products can make art analysis a real challenge.

As IMA scientists, we participate in three main work areas. First, the lab conducts service analytical work for conservators to help them understand an artwork’s materials prior to planning a conservation treatment. The restoration has to be effective as well as safe and sympathetic for the art. We also collaborate with curators and scholars in an area known as technical art history – essentially performing materials analysis to interpret the collection better. Typical questions in this arena touch on authenticity, authorship, condition, and appearance. Finally, we also carry out novel research of the type typical of industrial and academic laboratories. These studies focus on the degradation of artists’ materials or the development of new methods of conservation or microanalysis.

A current project highlights all of these areas. A recently acquired Uzbek coat, bright yellow with colorful cross-stitch embroidery, came with questions as to the item’s age. Was it an early version of the popular style, perhaps from the late 1800s, or was it a more recent version from the early 20th century? Working alongside volunteer analyst Dr. Victor Chen, a retired Eli Lilly drug chemist, we took tiny clippings of the garment’s dyed fibers from a hidden spot inside the coat’s lining and subjected the extracted dyes to high pressure liquid chromatography - electrospray ionization mass spectrometry (HPLC-ESI-MS). Based on the dyes’ retention times, absorption spectra, and their characteristic mass spectra, the yellow colorant was identified as the natural alkaloid dye berberine, but the bright reds and greens were determined to be synthetic organic dyes Fast Red AV and Acid Green 16.

Although berberine from the barberry bush (Berberis asiatica) has been used as a traditional dye for centuries - and is used even today as a histological stain for heparin in mast cells - the numerous modern synthetic dyes that were identified indicate a probable 20th century date for the coat. We are now researching the use of surface enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS) as a potentially non-invasive method for identifying these same colorants without having to remove fibers from the garment. We will present our work on the Uzbek coat analysis along with textile conservator Kathleen Kiefer and curator Niloo Paydar at the Annual Meeting of the American Institute for Conservation (AIC) here in Indianapolis in May.

Dr. Gregory Smith is The Otto N. Frenzel III Senior Conservation Scientist at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

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