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Finding Funds For Art And Artifact Science

Studying Picasso. Copyright: Sarah Everts

Are you looking for research dollars to support your scintillating art or artifact science project?

Tomorrow there’s a grant proposal deadline for the National Science Foundation’s Culture Heritage Science fund (also referred to as SCIART). The program was launched last year, injecting an initial $3.2 million to address, “the grand challenges in cultural heritage science,” explains NSF’s Zeev Rosenzweig, who helped start the program.

These grand challenges include the development of new analytical equipment for non-invasive, portable analysis of artwork and artifacts. (So that you could, say, identify a pigment used in an ancient cave painting without scraping a chunk off the cave wall and sending it back to lab for analysis.)

SCIART also funds projects that aim to understand and predict what precisely is happening to the molecules inside artwork and artifacts when they begin to degrade–such as when frescos crumble or acrylic paintings develop sticky surfaces—and how to stop or delay the effects.

According to Rosenzweig, SCIART’s second round of funding will add approximately $4 million more into cultural heritage research. I spoke with him recently about how the program got started and where it’s going. (Interview has been edited down for length.)

Artful Science: Why was SCIART needed and how did it get started?

Zeev Rosenzweig: Well, the NSF wasn’t funding much in this field. I mean, there is an NSF program called Archaeology & Archaeometry and it does fund some student or postdoc research connected to cultural heritage, but we weren’t often funding larger research projects on the chemistry and materials science side of things.

In 2009, I was invited to a symposium about cultural heritage science hosted by the Art Institute of Chicago and Northwestern University. As I listened, I thought, “Huh there’s a lot of good chemistry and materials science here.” So I asked the presenters why the NSF wasn’t seeing proposals on these topics. Many answered that they had applied in the past but they had not been successful. 

So I came back to NSF and asked around to see how we might catalyze this field. The NSF is a bottom-up organization so we don’t really tell people, ‘You have to write proposals on a given topic,’ just because we feel like it. It has to come from a community input. So I asked Northwestern’s Richard van Duyne to see if he’d lead a workshop to discuss the grand challenges in cultural heritage science, which the NSF might be able to then provide funding for. He worked with Marco Leona from the Metropolitan Museum.  The NSF sponsored the event with the Andrew Mellon Foundation.  [Here’s the workshop report.]

One of the major recommendations in the report was the need for the museum scientists to collaborate with academics. For me it was a no brainer: Academics get NSF funding all the time and if the proposals from museum scientists weren’t working, then maybe collaboration would lead to successful proposals. The first solicitation for proposals for SCIART was in 2010. In the end we received 40 proposals and we funded eight, so the success rate was 20%.

AS: Are there projects you don’t want to fund?

ZR: We are not soliciting conservation or restoration projects on a specific art object using amazing existing technology. This kind of work is very valuable and I have nothing against it but the museums can find resources to do this work. They don’t need the NSF. We don’t invest enough in to the SCIART program anyway. The amount of money museums need to restore and preserve major art objects is far exceeding what we can possibly provide.

We want to use our little money–which last year was $3.2 million and next year will be about $4 million–and really push the field of cultural heritage science into new directions. We don’t just want new analytical technology; we also want the development of new materials for protecting objects of cultural heritage.

AS: Aside from proposing a project in line with the grand challenges of cultural heritage science, what else are you looking for?

ZR: As we consider the advice of the review panel, we will additionally ask ourselves, ‘Will this project have the opportunity to impact other fields?’

It used to be that researchers in the museums would look around for technologies– that were already developed for, say, biomedical imaging—that they could bring to cultural heritage science. And now we’re asking them to bring stuff from their field out to other fields.

For example, there’s one project that we funded last round that really meets this criteria. The team is looking for a new way to analyze high-throughput spectroscopic data from paintings, in order to try to understand how the painting looked a thousand years ago. But the same technology that they are using to deal with a large volume of spectral data could be used to analyze chemical imaging maps of interstellar space. So the new technology they are developing for the analysis of cultural heritage objects could be adopted by other fields such as astrophysics or even in airport security.

It used to just be a one-way street from other fields to cultural heritage science. We’d like to see it become a two-way street.

AS: What’s the future of SCIART? How long will it run?

ZR: The plan is to run this for three years. We don’t view SCIART as a forever kind-of-a-thing. The program is supposed to catalyze the field, to increase the number of cultural heritage projects funded by NSF, and to build a community that can be competitive for NSF grants without the need for a special solicitation in cultural heritage. 

I really hope we continue to get projects in cultural heritage science once the SCIART program ends. It is happening even now. Last round, some people missed the deadline for the SCIART solicitation and so they submitted proposals to our regular program for unsolicited proposals. There were just a handful like this. But I was happy about it. We need to educate the research community that this kind of cultural heritage work is not so unusual. We are willing to fund good scientific ideas in this area, even without a solicitation like SCIART.

A natural development to the field of cultural heritage science would be the formation of an NSF Center in this field. NSF holds a number of competitions for Center awards.  One example for these competitions is for Science and Technology Centers (STC), which has a preliminary proposal deadline on May 30, 2011. My hope is that a group of SCIART investigators will form and compete for an STC Center in the area of cultural heritage science.

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