With a staff of two full-time scientists, the Scientific Research Laboratory answers questions related to preservation from the Museum’s six conservation labs, and studies materials and techniques of works of art in collaboration with both curators and conservators. Research on artifacts can address a wide variety of concerns, including authentication, state of preservation, and the nature of previous restorations. Projects involve noninvasive and invasive characterization of the materials found in artworks, which can contribute to broad technical studies that further understanding of individual works of art, as well as provide critical information for conservators developing treatment and preservation strategies.
The lab’s research scientists work to address inquiries on about 200 individual objects each year, ranging from requests that require less than an hour of analytical time to long-term multiple-object projects that entail hundreds of hours of analysis utilizing multiple techniques. The staff also regularly joins forces with scientists and conservators from other institutions around the world and coordinates research on the MFA collections by outside scientists. In addition, scientific support is provided to regional museums and conservation studios that otherwise do not have access to analytical facilities.
The lab is equipped to characterize most materials that have been utilized in works of art, from ancient to modern, and natural and man-made, thus offering insight into the making of art throughout the ages. In-house instrumentation includes transmitted and reflected light optical microscopy; Fourier transform infrared (FTIR), Raman, fiber-optic reflectance (FORS, 400-2500 nanometers), and fluorescence spectroscopy; X-ray fluorescence spectrometry (XRF); scanning electron microscopy (SEM) with energy-dispersive and wavelength-dispersive spectrometers for microanalysis; and gas (GC) and liquid (LC) chromatography with mass spectrometer (MS) detectors. Outside instruments routinely utilized include Matrix-Assisted Laser Desorption/Ionization-Time Of Flight (MALDI-ToF) mass spectrometers.
As an educational outreach service, the lab developed and maintains Conservation and Art Materials Encyclopedia Online (CAMEO), a free web-based resource. CAMEO contains chemical, physical, visual, and analytical information on historic and contemporary materials used in the conservation, preservation, and production of artistic, architectural, and archaeological materials. The database is continually growing and currently includes records on over 10,000 materials, their characterization by microscopy and other analytical techniques, as well as several specialized databases. CAMEO has a core group of editors from Europe and the United States and users from 190 countries.