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Profile: Conservation Scientist

Gregory Dale Smith has his dream job.

Late last year, the Indianapolis Museum of Art hired the Andrew W. Mellon Assistant Professor of Conservation Science at Buffalo State College as the new Senior Conservation Scientist. The position was created by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and with the help of another $2.6 million grant from the Lilly Endowment, Smith will create a new conservation science lab. From the ground up.

“I’ve been given a blank slate, essentially. Here’s a whole wing of the museum, build a science lab,” he told me.

Hoods in the soon-to-be-finished conservation science lab at the IMA. You wish the ones in your lab were this pretty. Photo by Leigh Krietsch Boerner.

And it’s going to be very cool. I went to visit Smith at the IMA in late July and got to see the lab in its half-finished loveliness. It’s an open, airy space, being decorated in the arts and crafts style, with two-toned green walls and dark trim. Two large windows frame a view onto the expansive wooded grounds, and are fitted with UV filtered glass to screen out potentially artwork-damaging high energy light.

My pictures don’t do it justice. Really, it’s going to be gorgeous. It’s scheduled to be up and running sometime in October.

Out of the space, Smith will operate what he calls service lab to the museum, “working to answer materials analysis questions for curators and conservators (people who directly treat damaged artwork).”

In addition, his job as a conservation scientist involves technical analysis of artworks in the collection. “This is a materials approach to art history, either to provide evidence of an artist’s materials or working methods, to authenticate an artwork, or to assist in attribution of an artwork,” Smith said.

That part of the job sounds pretty cool. Smith concurs. “Peering at van Gogh brushstrokes while sampling a painting will always raise the hair on the back of your neck,” he said.

Another responsibility is to research artists’ materials. That is, investigate how certain materials degrade, what the best conditions for preservation are, and find new ways to treat damaged artwork and new methods of analysis.

On top of all this, Smith also acts as an intermediary between conservation and the mainstream sciences and industry.

“With hundreds of new polymers, dyes, and material being patented every day, the conservation scientist serves to vet these for possible use as artists’ materials or for use in the conservation of artwork,” he said.

Gregory Dale Smith in the painting conservation lab at the IMA. Photo by Leigh Krietsch Boerner.

For example, Smith might test a material for light fastness, or put it under high heat and humidity to see how it stands up over time. This is important when you consider that a piece will potentially be exhibited hundreds of years into the future. They want to make sure that protective layer applied to the surface keep protecting (as well as being easily removable, in case it needs to come off).

Although it’s been growing in the last ten years or so, conservation science is still a very small field, Smith said. And it’s very competitive, simply because there just aren’t that many positions for scientists at museums.

“There will always be a need for conservation scientists,” Smith said, “but it is never going to be as large a field as say environmental or forensic chemistry.”

Still, a few opportunities are out there. For a student just finishing a PhD, it’s absolutely critical to post-doc.

“You certainly need an introduction to the museum world if you are coming from the mainstream sciences. This is the typical path—postdocing at major institutions like the Getty, National Gallery of Art, and hopefully soon, the IMA.”

That new space that’s being built has room for a few visiting graduate students, plus a post-doc or two. Jie Liu, from Purdue University in nearby Lafayette, will be their first post-doctoral appointee.

Smith said a key desired quality in a would-be post-doc is a broad analytical training.

“Although we all have certain long term research interests or particular strengths in a certain type of analysis, you pretty much have to be a generalist in an encyclopedic collection. It could be African basketry one day and neo-impressionist paintings the next, chromatography in the morning and x-ray fluorescence after lunch.”

Sample for the periodic table that will go in the new conservation science lab at the IMA. Photo by Leigh Krietsch Boerner.

It also helps to be a good problem solver and to think creatively. Often, if conservation scientists are analyzing a painting or artifact, they only have a tiny sample to work with. Which makes sense—you wouldn’t want to cut a six inch square out of the Mona Lisa. Smith also looks for someone with strong ties to a local university or research center, to facilitate collaboration and perhaps occasional use of their equipment.

And you need to know at least a little bit about art.

“I would hesitate if someone came in and couldn’t pick out a Renaissance painting from an abstract expressionist painting,” Smith said.

If you’re still an undergrad and are thinking about this career path, Smith suggests taking some art history or humanities classes before you graduate. For grad students, you might try contacting a local museum to see if you can do some collaborative research.

Smith is preaching what he practiced. He double majored in Chemistry and Anthropology/Sociology at Center College in Danville, KY. He went on to grad school at Duke, where he analyzed soils at an archaeological dig in Israel during the summers, and researched solar energy conversion complexes during the school year.

From there, Smith did multiple post-docs. He developed Raman techniques for studying artwork at University College London, worked on an infrared beamline at Brookhaven researching conservation of modern artists’ paints, and spent five years teaching conservation science at Buffalo State College.

I asked Smith if doing that many post-docs was normal. He said in conservation science, there is no normal. Since it’s a relatively new field, there aren’t any specific training programs. You just have to broadly prepare yourself as much as possible.

“However, there is so much to become familiar with that you can never be totally prepared.  It is another exciting aspect of the job that you are constantly learning new things about art, about science, and about humanity’s creativity.”

Below is a two-part video tour of the conservation labs. (Sorry for the Saving Private Ryan type wobbliness at times. I guess I need a dolly.)


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