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Art and Science to Blend at New Conservation Lab

At first glance, the subjects of art and science may seem to exist at opposite ends of the spectrum, but in the world of conservation science, the two subjects are remarkably intertwined—and Indianapolis will soon have a new place where they can converge. In just a matter of days, the Indianapolis Museum of Art will begin construction on its new Conservation Science Laboratory. Under the leadership of recently hired Senior Conservation Scientist Dr. Greg Smith, the lab is expected to forge new relationships among the arts community, Indiana's burgeoning life sciences industry and university academia—a relationship, Smith says, will benefit all.

"The strong scientific community in Indiana is what's going to make this lab successful," says Smith. "With places like Dow AgroSciences and Eli Lilly, powerhouse academic institutions in Indianapolis and also nearby Indiana University and Purdue University—we're going to hopefully take advantage of the strong scientific community here in Indiana."

In fact, Smith says the state's growing life sciences industry and the high number of scientists that support it are two main reasons the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded the $1.75 million grant to the IMA to build the 2,000 square foot lab. While the IMA is already a recognized leader in conservation science—the interdisciplinary study of cultural heritage through the use of scientific inquiry and analytical equipment—the grant will allow the museum to build its first conservation science laboratory. IMA leaders say such a state-of-the-art conservation lab is rare in "middle America."

"A lot of this work happens on the coasts in big powerhouse cultural institutions. In between coasts, you have very few museums with conservation science—the Art Institute of Chicago being the one large laboratory," says Smith. "This will put the IMA and Indianapolis on par with Chicago in terms of our analytical capability. We'll have one of the best outfitted labs in the country, and that really changes the way you do conservation and the way you can understand your collections." Listen

Having just taken the reins of the IMA's growing conservation efforts in January, Smith says one of his greatest goals is to take full advantage of Indiana's scientific community and the innovation that often occurs in industrial research and the state's academic institutions.

"Throughout its history, the field of conservation science has been parasitic in the sense that we make use of a lot of tools that are developed in the mainstream sciences," says Smith. "Being exposed to that through collaborations will expand our ability to use the latest technology—that's going to be very exciting for the field of conservation. Likewise, the nature of the projects [at the IMA] are exciting to [industrial or research] scientists who might not have thought of artwork as a materials problem. Those partnerships are going to be extremely important." Listen

While the innovation that occurs in industrial and research labs will likely have great impact on conservation science at the IMA, Smith says it's also likely that research taking place at the museum could be useful to mainstream scientists.

"There are some specific techniques and instrumentation that has been developed in [conservation science] that have now become common place in other scientific areas. A lot of the art techniques are developed to be non-contact, non-destructive analysis, and they're finding a lot of use in the field of forensics," says Smith. "If you think about forensics, there are a lot of similarities [to studying art]; you don't want to destroy the evidence, there's usually really small amounts of it—trace evidence—so you have to use techniques that are appropriate to that." Listen

While the connection between science and art may seem clearer, the role of life sciences in the art community may seem less obvious. However, IMA conservators say some artwork—and the material used in it—is very much "alive" and can be studied with life science principles.

"[The IMA has] a very strong collection of African art, and it's made of a lot of organic materials; it's sometimes composed of wood or fibers, it could be blood or dung, it could be any number of organic materials," says IMA Senior Conservator of Painting David A. Miller. "We also deal with textiles such as cotton or silks. There's cellulose, organic inks and organic colorants that fade with exposure to light—the list is endless." Listen

IMA leaders expect the conservation lab to be fully operational by August, thus launching a new era in Indianapolis' art and science communities—an era marked by collaborations among academic, industrial and conservation scientists all learning from each other and expanding their fields.

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